Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Plated Breakfast

On a recent trip to Canada, I became acquainted with a meal called The Plated Breakfast. A curiously described meal, and yet aptly named because it is clearly distinguished from the from the Stand and & Go Breakfast offered at, let’s say a Starbucks, the daily At My Desk Yogurt & Granola Bar Breakfast, and of course, the Drive Thru Because You’re Late For Work Breakfast.

The Plated Breakfast, at least as presented by the Fairmount Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, marked the start of each day at the conference I was attending. The food was of superior quality, yet the ambience was pure stereotype business meeting. A congregate meal at the ubiquitous round table in the impersonal hotel conference room. The table held a vast array of plates, glasses, and cups accompanied by multiple forks, spoons, knives, and assorted serving pieces.
But on the second day of the conference, The Plated Breakfast became a singular event. That particular morning was distinguished by the corrective actions of our waitperson, who quite reminded me of my stern and imperious third-grade teacher, Mrs. McNulty. Visualize, if you will, a round table with seating for ten. Each place setting consisted of a bread plate and butter knife, two forks, two spoons, a knife, a cup and saucer, a water glass, a juice glass, a folded napkin. Adding to the visual spectacle, were a pair of plastic sunglasses and a neatly folded eyeglass cloth tucked into its plastic holder; a cleverly presented invitation to next year’s conference being held in Orlando, Florida.

My friend Sally and I arrived at a table where four places were already occupied. We took chairs across from our fellow conference goers, smiled, introduced ourselves, and sat down. The problem began when I reached for the coffee pot in the center of the table and made ready for the initial pour of the day. Which cup was mine?

I looked across the table and tried to see which direction our table partners had started. I tried counting the place settings between us. To the right. To the left. I couldn’t calculate, so I gave it a lucky guess. I poured, then reached for the bagels and cream cheese and claimed the bread and butter plate on my left. As we chatted, our waitperson arrived with the plate of breakfast. Wow! Elegance! A scoop of scrambled eggs comfortably seated in a pastry shell, flanked by tiny rounds of uniformly browned potatoes, accompanied by 2 slices of perfectly crisped Canadian bacon.
“Non,” said our waitperson. She then proceeded to rearrange my plates and glasses and shift my tableware. “The plate goes here. The knife and fork here.” I cowered back in chair at a clear disadvantage in this assault on my place setting. “I need this space,” she decreed like a general taking command of the battleground. Suddenly, everyone at the table who had been looking forward to what was obviously and an epicurean breakfast was thrown into disorientation. Was this my cup? No – because this is your water glass over here. No – I already drank from that one there.

Within moments that seemed as hours, I had a plated breakfast before me and all the plates, utensils, cups, and glasses on either side of me and across the table were now completely rearranged. Our waitperson smiled at me indulgently, “Bon. Merci,” she declared and hurried off to pick up the next plates in her arsenal of breakfast. I looked down at my plate fearing which fork to pick up. “It’s OK,” Sally reassured “She’s gone now. You can eat.”
The conference I attended was the Society of Research Administrators. I learned a lot those three days about research planning, leadership, and ensuring the responsible conduct of research. But nothing I learned that week in Montreal would be as enduring as positioning yourself for the correct placement of A Plated Breakfast.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Freinds of the Grape - Nov2011

Last night the Madison Friends of the Grape gathered for our fourth meeting for the purpose of expanding our wine palate, enjoying great food, and generally reveling in the camaraderie of new friends joined in mutual admiration of fermented grapes.

Our group was slow to get started, what with the first gathering held in October of 2010. The next in September 2011. Then October. And now November, aka last night. We’re on a roll now! The Friends: (last names omitted to protect reputations and careers) Nancy, Jerry, Kevin, Rick, Bob, Christine, Jenny, Scott, Jon, Beth. And yours truly DakotaDiner and her husband, The Farmer-Architect.

Last night we met at Jon and Beth’s barn. It’s a barn, but only in the very loosest sense of the word. There is planned space for horses, but the remaining space is made over into a warm and cozy gathering place complete with overstuffed couches, flat screen TVs, and a well-appointed kitchen primed for gourmet cooking. Well – lacking a stove and oven – but that’s a minor detail. The decorating theme reflects an life in the great outdoors spelled out in warm earth tones, hunting prints, and touches of equine memorabilia.

The weather paired perfectly with the wine: Cabernet Sauvignon. A big robust and lusty wine in keeping with the gusty, windy South Dakota night. Armed with an outdoor grill, two crock pots, and a roaster, Beth turned out an exquisite dinner to complement wine and weather featuring South Dakota pheasant, seasonally acquired by Jon (OK – I won’t dance around reality – the pheasants were hunted, shot, and dressed by Jon on the opening day of pheasant season three weeks ago.)

The Menu
Pheasant Poppers
Green Salad with Feta, Toasted Pine Nuts, and Dried Cranberries
Pheasant Rustica
Wild Rice
Butternut Squash
Chocolate-Raspberry Torte

Up first in the blind tasting of ten bottles, Bottle #1 everyone agreed was a nice wine, although a little lightweight for a cab. Great cab nose and flavors of cherry and plum, well-balanced, not too tannic.
2008 Ghost Pines Winemaker’s Blend, 68% Napa, 32% Sonoma
Notable quote: “After tasting all ten, it’s still my favorite,” (me)

#2: More body than #1, nice legs, young, some heat in the finish
2008 Chateau St. Michelle – Columbia Valley
Notable quotes: “I enjoy it,” Jenny; “It grows on you,” (Christine)

#3: Big nose, nice color, too cold (OK – who forgot to take the bottles out of the car earlier?), bit peppery, more a traditional cab type
2007 Big Vine Napa
Notable quotes: Beth liked. “I’d push that guy off the bridge,” (Kevin – in reference to the movie It’s A Wonder Life. Can’t remember exactly how this came into the conversation, but it seemed notable at the time)

And then –just in time - the Pheasant Poppers were served…..

#4: Totally different than the first three, smooth, fruity but with more body than #1, an excellent pairing with the Poppers that consisted of pheasant, a slice of water chestnut, a slice of jalapeno, wrapped in bacon and finished on the grill
2009 Two Vines – Columbia Crest
Notable observation: Jenny likes this the best so far

#5: Cold – again; different from all the previous bottles; thin mouth (me); A mouth as full as we’ve had (Farmer-Architect); do we observe a lack of consensus on this bottle?
2009 Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills
Notable quotes: “Bizarre,” (Christine); “Jenny – you’re behind!” (From the group on observing Jenny still savoring #4)

#6: Leggy, no tannin, well-balanced, best cab nose so-far, a classic cabernet
2008 Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley
Notable quotes: “You want to drink this out of a fish bowl with a long stem,” (Kevin); “This is the wine you take home to your mother,” (Bob); “It’s excellent,” (Scott); “Yes you are eating too many poppers – OMG, here’s the evidence.” (Jenny to Scott as she holds up a handful of toothpicks)

#7: Little nose, but great body and good flavor, vanilla, a little clove, a little smoky, lays nice on the tongue
2009 14 Hands Washington State
Notable quotes: “I’m feeling vanilla all over the place,” (Scott)

#8: So – now Jon brings out the aerator, with just two bottles yet to go. Aerating didn’t help this one, odd, kind of harsh; Scott says benign, Gary says lightweight, Bob says immature
2009 Fat Basterd Thierry & Guy France
Notable quotes: “It tastes better with the pepper jack cheese,” (me); “But I love the name,” (Kevin)

#9: Really deep, dark color, prominent nose, makes you sit up and take notice, the taste meets the expectation of the nose, some think not as good as #5,6,7; little flat and sour in the finish
2007 Bogle
Notable quotes: “A spontaneous purchase – on sale for 8$ at Lewis Drug,” (Jon); “Reminds me of Dirty Diaper Salad,” (Jenny) (Note - A possible pairing? I’ll try to get the recipe.)

#10: Cold again, medium cab nose, fruity, yet odd; something medicinal, sweet and yet a metallic taste
2006 Clois du Bois- North Shore
Notable quotes: “Something in the middle of the taste I just don’t like,” (me); “Tastes like polio vaccine,” (Kevin) But how would he ??? --- don’t even ask!

It was a perfect evening – the barn, the food, the wine, the friends. We have the date set for next month’s tasting and planned a brunch gathering in a couple weeks, to feature a scone bake-off.
I’m not sure how I ended up as official scribe to this group. But it’s an honor I intend to live up to. In doing so, I must give recognition to the first Wine Group I belonged to in Morgantown, West Virginia. I dedicate this blog post to the great memories they created and what they taught me about great wines. Sante, Rena, John, Jeff, Ted, Chris, Jay, Chris and Adam.

Cooking In My Daughter's Kitchen

For fourteen years I was a single parent of Elizabeth. I look back upon those years as the Trifecta of my life. At the same time I was parenting, I was building my career in research administration and going to graduate school. When all was said and done after those fourteen years my daughter had a high school diploma and was successfully launched into her freshman year of college, I had a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in political science, and was the director of sponsored programs at Frostburg State University. In Elizabeth years – that was age 4 to age 18.

Clearly during those years, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Although I enjoyed cooking, a ‘from scratch,’ home-cooked meal for the two of us happened only sporadically. On rare occasions I’d host a group of friends and pull out all the stops for a sit-down dinner party – soup to nuts to elegant dessert with wines matched to each course.

I learned during those years that it was possible to instill concepts of good nutrition even when dining out regularly, but I was always concerned that Elizabeth wasn’t learning proper cooking techniques and meal preparation. The one exception was our ‘Monday Night Menu’: fish sticks and Kraft macaroni & cheese with green peas. Elizabeth excelled at macaroni and cheese from the box. This meal was our Monday night special that followed my weekly aerobics class and was accompanied by the latest episode of Anne of Avonlea on PBS. I consoled myself with the thought that across town my friend Audrey, also a working single parent and graduate student, was serving her daughter beans and wieners while watching Jeopardy. I thought my dinner was nutritionally superior. As I look back now - it’s hard to see the distinction.

Earlier this summer, I spent vacation time with Elizabeth and my son-in-law Nate at their home in Charlotte, NC. We were eating dinner one night and I reminded her of the time she had her best friend at our house for a sleep over. I made from scratch lasagna for their dinner. As I was dishing it out of the pan, Elizabeth informed me that she didn’t like home cooking. I paused for a moment and considered that instead of three hours making lasagna in our postage-stamp sized kitchen, I could have been spending quality time with the American Political Science Review and working on a paper that was due in two days. Nor did I mention the grant that was due the following week that had yet to have the budget complete and the evaluation section finalized. My reply to her: “This is dinner tonight. Bon app├ętit.” As I left the dining room to go attend to my computer, I turned and said, “Oh and by the way we’ll be having lasagna leftovers three nights this week.” Elizabeth did not remember this incident.

These days, both Nate and Elizabeth are immersed in building their respective careers. So one day, during my vacation in Charlotte, I decided to fix dinner for them. It was a week night and they both had left early that morning and were coming home late. I had a happy maternal feeling knowing that they would come home to a nice dinner on a weeknight. And I remembered how much I would have loved if someone had done that for me during those Trifecta years.

About the time that Elizabeth was moving out of our house and prepping for dorm life, I was remarried and getting ready to join Gary (my farmer-architect) and his fully equipped kitchen in Ohio. Much of my Elysian Avenue kitchen was packed away for the day Elizabeth was ready to set-up housekeeping. Now eleven years later and newly married, Elizabeth’s kitchen reflects Martha Stewart, Crate & Barrel, Calphalon cookware, Mikasa flatware and Riedel stemless wine glasses. The latest and greatest and most up-to-date gourmet-equipped kitchen.As I poked around Elizabeth’s kitchen looking for pots and pans, measuring spoons, and mixing bowls, I kept happening onto remnants of our Elysian Avenue kitchen. The all-purpose stainless steel bowl (passed from my mother to me) that was magically always the perfect size for whatever needed to be mixed from cole slaw to cake batter to homemade play dough. The two piece plastic bowl with nested strainer I purchased for $3.95 on a trip to Pittsburgh’s Strip District (a shopping area catering to restaurantuers and kitchen supply houses). I used that constantly, as Nate and Elizabeth said they do now too. A single glass left from the set of six orange embellished juice glasses stands assertively by the oversize stoneware mugs, and the West Virginia University commemorative cups, which no doubt began their life filled with beer at Mountaineer Field.

During the Trifecta years I despaired of Elizabeth ever having the desire, let alone the ability, to eat right and cook healthy. Yet, here she is now a menu planner, a thrifty shopper, and training to run her first marathon. Son-in-law Nate, as an elementary school physical education teacher, models good eating habits and proper nutrition, and regular exercise. On their bookshelves you’ll find the red and white Better Homes & Gardens cookbook standard next to Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, and the Barefoot Contessa. Interspersed with these contemporary classics are her grandmother’s well-worn and frequently consulted reference cookbooks including the American Carpatho-Russian Cookbook compiled by the Russian-Orthodox Church in Johnstown, PA., reflecting the Russian and Polish heritage on her paternal side. I still have the cookbooks and recipe collections that reflect the English heritage of her maternal side.

I am always moved by the simplest and homeliest kitchen utensils, dishes, pots and pans. Those are usually the first items I hone in on at auctions and estate sales. They speak to me of daily triumphs and challenges that make up our lives. Seeing the odds and ends from our home in West Virginia, now living side-by-side with things fresh from the bridal registry, I felt a bit made me homesick for those good ole’ days crammed with multiple pressures, competing demands for my time and attention, ongoing financial worries, and struggles to excel in the office and the classroom. At the time it seemed a difficult life, but as is usually the case when you look back, I see a life punctuated by the satisfactions of accomplishment, the miracles of growing up, and the reflections on a life well-fed.

To you, Elizabeth, on the threshold of your life, Bon Appetit!

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Feast for Body and Soul at The King's Kitchen

I’m not sure how often I have ranted about the lack of fine dining, or even merely adequate dining, experiences in Madison, SD, my current hometown. I tend to rant frequently on this topic: blog or non-blog, private or public conversations. Our previous home in Ohio, on the outskirts of Columbus, was a mecca of fine dining establishments. We used to eat out an average three times a week, we now average twice a month. Definitely helps the budget, but trying out new restaurants and re-visiting favorites adds zest to our otherwise thrifty lifestyle. And it’s a nice break from the standard palate experienced in our own kitchen, which despite my vast cookbook collection and interminable hours with the Food Network, can still get a little jaded from time to time.

Returning home from Ohio to South Dakota with Rhett, our new basset hound (story for another blog post) I turned around a week later and flew to North Carolina to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Charlotte and my parents in Franklin. While in Charlotte, Elizabeth and Nate (daughter and s-i-l) took me to dinner at The King’s Kitchen.

Now, before I get to specifics on the dinner I need to clear my conscious a bit. I love gourmet cooking and dining. I will travel far and wide in search of required ingredients to prepare a new recipe and ensure my dinner guests a unique and different culinary experience. I loathe substituting ingredients, especially if I’m trying out a recipe for the first time. If the recipe says leeks, I want to taste leeks, not yellow onions. If the recipe says Hubbard squash, then I don’t want acorn, butternut, or pumpkin. After I get the feel for a recipe I’m all for experimentation, but for a recipe’s debut appearance in my kitchen, I want to know and taste as close to the original as I can get. In my view this honors the chef/recipe creator. This is usually and expensive approach to cooking especially if the ingredients are in anyway exotic or I have to make an extra trip or an out of the way trip to a specialty food store. When I lived in Morgantown, WV it was not unusual for me to drive to Pittsburgh, PA (destination: The Strip District) when I was planning a dinner party. (SideBar: I have to remember to tell you about the carry-out Tibetan dinner from the Himalayan Tibetan Restaurant in Pittsburgh when I hosted a party honoring the Dalai Lama’s birthday).

In the same way, when dining out, not all ingredients are created equal. In the hands of a talented chef, even the most humble ingredients can be elevated to new heights. I want that lofty experience now and then and I’m willing to pay extra for it.

But I confess, I feel guilty when I’m spending $14 a pound on wild catch Alaskan salmon when I know how many people can barely afford a can of generic tuna. Likewise, I know how to transform an ordinary Friday Night Date-Night with My Farmer-Architect-Husband into a romantic adventure even if our destination is Wal-Mart and we follow up with a fast food burger and a Coke. But I will never claim it’s the same experience as savoring bison tenderloin with a glass of vintage cabernet and the riverside view at the Wild Sage Grille in Sioux Falls. I don’t need that experience as a regular menu option, but every now and then it’s an experience that boosts my spirits.

So it was with great interest and a certain free-ing feeling when Elizabeth said she and Nate wanted to take me to The King’s Kitchen in Uptown Charlotte. The King’s Kitchen is owned by Chef Jim Noble and all profits from both the restaurant and catering go back into the Charlotte community. Chef Jim also partners with area ministries to provide training and employment opportunities. Not only did I enjoy an excellent dinner, I was making a contribution. Chef Jim also supports area farmers and buys local as often as he can.

The King’s Kitchen menu is billed as “new local southern cuisine.” I figured, if ever I was going to try collard greens, this would be the place. I ordered Aunt Beaut’s Skillet Fried Chicken, mac’n cheese, and stewed tomatoes, along with the collard greens. The appetizer – pimento cheese. All was excellent, although the stewed tomatoes were way too sweet for my palate. My first experience with collards was memorable. The taste was a little strong for me, yet I sensed they were excellently prepared, earthy with an undercurrent of tangy vinegar. The pimento cheese was a real treat, zippy, creamy, and a toothsome foil to the crisp buttery toast it was served on. I’ve had variations on pimento cheese before, but at the King’s Kitchen it was the best I’ve ever had.

I certainly recommend the King’s Kitchen. It’s worth going out of your way for. Chef Jim Noble gives us a rare and unique opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of the table and support his good works and the work of others in the Charlotte community. The King’s Kitchen is a concept that can and should be replicated in every community. I’m already figuring out how to bring the concept back to Madison. We may not have a four star chef in Madison, but we have people with need, farmers with fresh produce, talented cooks, and people with talent and abilities to bring it all together.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Alpha & Omega - or The Return of the Dakota Diner

I’ve experienced a hibernation of sorts these past few months. The muse was frozen I think. But the 24 hours that passes for springtime in South Dakota is history and summer is here in earnest. My writing-self has thawed out and is coming back to life.

Just like the gardens. Somewhere along about the end of April we had the last of the butternut squash from autumn 2010 (Butternut Squash Lasagna). The next day we had the first of the asparagus in Asparagus Risotto. Thick crunchy stalks heavy with the promise of garden’s bounty nestled in Arborio rice swollen with white wine and chicken stock and swept up in parmiggiano-reggiano.

Autumn squash and spring asparagus. The Alpha and Omega of the gardening life.
Now at the first of July we are full swing into broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and radishes. Hot weather started very late this year. But bad weather news for the strawberries – wet cold does not make for sweet, ripe, and juicy – is glory for the cool weather crops – the greens and the coles (broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, and cauliflower).

I see the cycle of seasons more clearly here in South Dakota. Must be because winter is a definite season. Not the wishy-washy damp cold with an occasional burst of snow that I remember of Ohio winters, and even West Virginia winters. There is never ambiguity in South Dakota winters. Alas, spring is short-lived - . a quick sweet breath and poof! – it’s gone. Grab it quick because your next breath bears the heat of prairie grass baking in the sun.

The apple trees and peach trees we planted last summer are leafing out. They survived their first South Dakota winter. The elderly apple tree that’s been in the backyard for an indeterminate length of time has leafed out as well. No blossoms this year though. We had a bumper group of apples last fall. The elderly apple still wobbles perilously under the edict of my Farmer-Architect who is threatening to dispatch it if it can’t produce.

The fingerling potatoes I bought at the Sioux Falls Farmers Market last fall and then promptly forgot about in the back of the kitchen cabinet all winter put forth impressive shoots from their numerous eyes. They are coming to new life in the backyard garden, securely fenced in and safe from marauding squirrels with a taste for spuds.

The circle of life. I am so blessed to be living it every day on the prairie and in the gardens. And now I share it with you in my writing.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

First Grade Soup and Crackers

Busy day at work. Proposal due today. One due tomorrow. Two due next week. And as usual when in the final throes of a proposal submission, a critical piece of paper is needed that requires me to spend an hour in a tizzy tracking down a bureaucratic document that likely no one will even give a second glance to. In this case, the required form will assure the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that we, Dakota State University, are in total compliance with all applicable federal policies pertaining to civil rights and discrimination. I know we're in compliance, the State of South Dakota knows we are in compliance, everyone and their uncle knows we're in compliance, but without Form HHS-690, Health & Human Services is just not so sure.

With the form now safely on it's way to the vast and faceless bureaucracy in Washington, DC - which is undoubtedly snowed in today anyway - I could quickly take time for a fast lunch. Today's gastronmic destination: The Marketplace at the Trojan Center (aka the DSU Student Union). Ah - there it was Tomato Bisque Soup. A perfect lunch entree for a day that's minus 10 degrees. I filled the carry out container, and periloulsy negotiated my way across the ice and snow back to my office in Heston Hall.

Once at my desk I took the lid off my soup and the aroma of vine-ripened tomatoes and sun-drenched basil with a hint of garlic filled my office. A lovely counterpoint to the frost encrusted window through which an optimistic sun was making its presence known. Springtime and garden planting can't be all that far away now. I have sunshine and the seed catalogs to prove it.

In the meantime, I needed warm sustenance. I picked up the saltine crackers that came with my soup and as I started to crunch them up in their clear cellophane packet I had an instantaneous flashback to lunch at Warren Glen Elementary School, Lower Pohatcong Township, New Jersey. Yup - you guessed it, my alma mater. I heard Mrs. Hinchman's voice ring out over the table of ravenous first-graders "Don't you Boys break-up your crackers like that." Her voice was so clear, this could have happened yesterday.

There was always an issue on soup days because while The Girls would decourously open their packets, take out one cracker at a time, break it delicately into small pieces and drop it gracefully into the soup, followed by a wiping of hands on the napkin before picking up the spoon and quietly sipping the soup with the grace and delicacy of ingenues at the debutante ball. But The Boys? Their mission was to reduce the crackers to microscopic dust while still in the confines of the cellophane packet, rip the packets open with the force of a tsunami, thereby spraying their bowls, their neighbors, and half the table including The Girls trying to keep their dresses clean. (This was about 1959 after all!) This action would of course require them to lunge across the table, reach past 3 or 4 of their student colleagues seated to their right and left in order to purloin additional cracker packets, and repeat the process all the while accompanied by shoving, guffawing, pounding, and snorting. Feeding time at the zoo had nothing on these kids. "Boys! Boys!" Mrs. Hinchman would admonish. They would settle for about 90 seconds and then the entire first grade would be treated to a repeat performance.

I freely admit that my first grade experience was 52 years ago. I marvel how the smallest everyday experience stays with you. How the seemingly most insignificant act, the opening of a cellophane package of saltimes, can trigger such intense and vivid memories. I see Mrs. Hinchman standing at the end of the table, I see the boys being rowdy and obnoxious, I can even smell the tomato soup and taste the grilled cheese sandwiches our cook always made with hamburger buns. And I marvel at how happy this whole recollection makes me feel.

I have no doubt that when I am deep in retirement and I sit down to a bowl of tomato soup and crackers I'll remember this day in January 2011. I'll see the bright sunshine of the South Dakota winter sun, I'll see the proposal detritus spilled acoss my desktop and I'll hear the noises of the office just outside my door, the printer, the copier, and the occasional phone ringing. I hope then too I'll feel the satisfaction of the work I do. Maybe think that in the midst of everday living and ordinary experience, I will have made a difference.