29 May 2010

Ode to the Horseshoe Sandwich

I returned recently from a brief visit back to the homeland—West-central Illinois. I actually didn’t grow up there, but my dad’s family lives in this area, about 60 miles West of Springfield, and I don’t think it will ever cease to be exotic to me.  I am  amazed by this part of the world. I don’t care what you say about the Midwest, these people are creative! They grind up leftover ham and stir in pickle relish and mayonnaise to make Ham Salad! They put ranch dressing on their baked potatoes! And they invented the most wondrous creation this side of Green Jell-O Salad with Cottage Cheese and Pineapple: the Horseshoe Sandwich.

I have eaten only a small number of these creations in my life (which is why I am still alive), and since I grew up in the Big City, I had to do some research on this gut buster to properly inform you of its wondrous beauty. I always thought it was the weirdest damn thing I’d ever seen when I was a kid visiting my grandparents, and it turns out most of the country feels the same way: it is the “signature dish” of the Springfield, Illinois area, meaning no one else eats it.

The sandwich was created in the late 1920s by chef Joe Schweska at Leland Hotel in Springfield, Illinois located on the corner of Sixth and Capitol (now an office building). There, there’s my research for you. What is it, you ask? It is a hot mess of what should be a normal enough sandwich (hamburger patty, ham steak, or fried pork tenderloin are all candidates) with a pile of smooshed French fries and a generous ladling of cheese sauce placed atop the meat. Being paranoid about taking pictures in greasy diners near interstates, I tried to find an attractive picture online--the above horror was the best I could do. So, thick cut fried bread or a white bun, hamburger, undercooked, frozen French fries, oozy cheese sauce, and another big piece of white bread. There it is. And for the kiddies, you can order the “pony” size so they don’t overeat. Gotta start ‘em young.

The funny thing is that, despite the language I use to describe this creation, it’s pretty good. I mean, if you are craving salt and grease and don’t want to eat another meal again for at least twelve hours, the Horseshoe does have a certain charm. It’s not so terribly different from much-loved French-Canadian poutine, the plate of French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy. It could be my genetically inherited Midwestern taste buds talking, but I suspect that perhaps it caters to the baser food instincts in us all. Go on, try it. You know you want to.

Horseshoe Sandwich
1 oversized white bun or two slices Texas toast
1 oversized piece of meat or meat substitute (I’m going to try a Garden burger to be healthy). Don’t grill it—that would compete with the cheese sauce
1 large handful of French fries, fried but not quite golden brown. Don’t get fancy—use Ore-Ida frozen ones.
1 half-cup Cheese Whiz or similar cheese-like sauce, heated

Perhaps if we drink red wine with this, it will mitigate the cholesterol issues.

22 May 2010

Eating in Sunny Seattle

There are so many great places to eat in Seattle that in a decade I would still be discovering new things, so just to keep it simple, I’m going to give you dinner and dessert. Well, life is short, and you should eat dessert first. Please, oh please, take care of this crucial human need at Wink Cupcakes at 1817 Queen Anne Avenue North. Their tiny shop offers a couple of tables for dining in, or you can wander the streets and enjoy all the neighborhood shops on sunny days. And the perky, incredibly happy-to-be-alive staff (I don’t blame them) can answer all of your questions about the dietary contents of their lovely little sugar bombs (yes, there are vegan options; yes, they choose fresh whenever possible and use no preservative or trans fats). They even have a cupcake Happy Hour Wednesdays from 3pm to 5pm; if that isn’t serious, I don’t what is.

There are three different sizes of cupcakes at Wink; the medium size, which is what’s out and on display, is a good, modest size of cake, though of course it is piled high with almost the same amount of frosting. My favorites were the moist Red Velvet with a tangy, surprising light cream cheese frosting; the ever-so-healthy carrot cake (with visible shredded carrot inside) with the very same cream cheese frosting; and the even moister, dense peanut butter with an incredibly light, fluffy whipped peanut butter frosting (you can also request other frosting flavors on these). They have ice creams, as well, if for some reason you find yourself entering a cupcake shop and craving ice cream instead. I don’t judge.

I know that Italian food may not strike you as terribly original for dinner; most of the time you could make the stuff at home for pennies and it would turn out just as well. But still, what is sexier than a dimly lit, poshly decorated Italian place for a late dinner? Actually, I went to Pomodoro with about ten other people, and the ambiance worked just as well for us. I do hope our loud cackling didn’t ruin anyone’s proposal…

Pomodoro, at 2366 Eastlake Avenue, actually offers Italian and Spanish fare, and the combination of the two yields some subtly creative dishes. The Barcelonan chef got his start in the Spanish Army thirty years ago and has cooked for the likes of the King of Spain and various European politicians. We ordered a nice bottle of Temperanillo that was smooth and smoky (wine can be ordered by the glass, half bottle, or full bottle).

From the tapas side of the menu, we ordered ChampiƱones al Jerez, whole mushroom caps grilled with olive oil, sea salt, and dry sherry. I could have used more salt, but they were otherwise a perfect complement to the wine. The dishes, well-proportioned and all beautifully prepared, included smoked baby clams with linguine and an olive oil-white wine sauce, fresh crab meat in a dill-cream sauce over spaghetti, roast chicken with dollops of potato gratin and an asparagus spear embedded in a zucchini boat (definitely the most artistically constructed dish of the evening), and a surprisingly light carbonara with crispy pancetta. With fresh local ingredients form the ocean, perfectly cooked pasta, and sauces which were tastefully made and applied, I could happily recommend any one of these dishes. The restaurant is also accommodating when it comes to adjusting recipes to make them vegetarian.

15 May 2010

The illusive search for pie…

I was on tour in northwestern Wyoming a few years back (I’m still trying to sort out the logic in this move, which yielded audiences of 30 at best), and travel always leads to the search for some special meal for me. I think this is true for a lot of us—exotic places often lead to memorable exotic meals. Only I was not in an exotic place, really; I was in a place that reminded me of Grandma’s house, all small towns and cowboy hats and friendly but puzzled smiles (puzzled because I was the first unfamiliar face anyone had seen in at least six months). And so this homeyness somehow redirected my food thoughts towards comfort food, and I started looking for the perfect piece of pie.

I love pie. It is my favorite dessert. I do not prefer pecan pie or lemon meringue pie, or anything in which sugar is the main ingredient for the filling. I just like fruit pies. Juicy, slightly tart fruit pies—cherry, blueberry, rhubarb, peach—you name it, if it grew from a tree or bush, it makes a terrific pie filling. There is such a beautiful simplicity to it—roll out a buttery, flakey crust (not too much mixing, please!), pour in a filling of fruit with some sugar and flour, and top it with another aforementioned crust. Simple ingredients, so delicious when you pull it out of the oven—what could be more perfect?

Ah, but when something which should be perfect is a disaster, it is the most bitter disappointment of all. I experienced disappointment many times on this tour. In the first town, the pie filling was obviously poured from a can, and the crust was so overmixed it was like a piece of shoe leather. In Jackson Hole, I went to a cafe reviewed favorably for its baked goods in several national magazines. They were obviously bribed.

I was feeling destitute by the time we reached the last town, a town where the only motel had hourly rates and olive green shag carpeting in the rooms. Across the highway (the one paved street in town), was a log cabin diner with a breakfast that started at 6am and a special sign advertising their homemade pies. This was it! My unwilling companions agreed to join me as soon as they opened at 6am, and so off we stumbled, in the February pre-dawn light, across the highway to get our seats at the diner which would surely serve my the pie of my dreams.

As it turns out, two kinds of people go to the diner at 6am to have breakfast: single local men over the age of 50, generally missing a tooth or two, and idiots from out of town looking for an authentic experience. Well, I should clarify: my friends are not idiots, just overly compliant. The waitress had not changed her hairstyle (nor had her boss changed the uniform) since 1967, and all three customers stared at us with extreme suspicion in their eyes. We ordered all the things one might be curious about in a place like this: biscuits and gravy, griddle cakes and sausage, scrambled eggs and bacon, and everyone flipped over their coffee cups, the universal sign for “fill me with anything caffeinated, I can’t tell at this point.” And I ordered pie.

That earned stares from everyone in the room (had I really shouted in all my excitement, or was everyone just very, very quiet while I was ordering?), and the waitress was clearly rolling her eyes when she asked me which kind. She was rolling her eyes because she knew what was coming next: “what kind do you have?” I asked. She gave me a good long stare with pursed lips before rattling off the name of every fruit which had ever been grown. I was numbed by the list. Which should I choose? And what if I chose incorrectly? What if there was a really excellent pie and I bypassed it for some mediocre kind that every local knew not to get? Logically, I chose to ask our chipper waitress, who clearly knew everything and never left the building. She suggested cherry. A classic. Of course.

After what seemed like an excruciating wait, our food came (the coffee was terrible, of course. Cracker Jack City). The biscuits and gravy looked like lumpy glue over amputated stumps, the eggs were beige, and I’m pretty sure I saw Elvis in the grease congealing atop my friend’s sausage patty. But what did I care? I ordered the PIE. And it was gorgeous—golden, flakey, and bursting with brilliant red cherry filling. And what’s more, I could identify many cherries in this filling, with just enough goop to hold it together. This was going to be good. This was going to be the highlight of my week.

I gingerly stabbed at the end of the pie, and crust flew everywhere—a good sign. I slowly lifted my fork to my mouth—this was it!—and clamped down on the dessert I had been searching for all week. At 6:15am. The crust was good, the filing had a nice flavor to it, but. . . what the hell was so lumpy in my mouth? Had I burned my tongue on so much bad coffee during the week that I had lacerations? It was like a mouthful of tiny little bumps, like miniscule beads of some sort. I took another bite. Still that weird sensation, which was starting to distract from the decent (though not amazing) flavor. Had someone dumped caviar into my pie? I did not like it. I pulled the top crust off and started inspecting the pie filling.

By now my friends, who knew very well that we were only there at this hour for my slice of cherry pie, leaned forward to see what the problem was. It looked just like it felt in my mouth—a bunch of tiny little pearls evenly distributed through my otherwise respectable cherry pie filling. “oh,” my sausage-eating friend said causally, “they used tapioca instead of flour to thicken the filling. Really?!?! Is that legal??? My friends, this is not right. Don’t do this to your pie—fruit was not meant to feel like gravel in your mouth.

Grandma Riner’s Cherry Pie

2 cups plus 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter
6 to 7 tablespoons cold water
4 cups pitted sour cherries
1/3 cup sugar
5 drops almond extract
1/4 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a bowl, combine the 2 cups of flour and the salt. With a pastry blender or two forks, cut in the butter until the pieces are the size of peas.
Sprinkle the water over the flour mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time. Mix lightly with a fork. Continue adding water until the mixture forms a dough. Gather the dough into a ball, cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine the cherries, the 4 tablespoons flour, the sugar, and the almond extract. Set aside.

Divide the dough in half and roll it into two 10-inch circles. Line the bottom of a 9-inch pie or tart pan with 1 circle of the dough. Turn the cherry mixture into the pie pan. Cover the pie with the second circle of dough. Tuck the edges of the top crust under the edges of the bottom crust. Crimp to seal. Cut 6 to 8 vents in the top crust.
Brush the top crust with a light coating of milk. Bake the pie on the middle rack of the oven for 30 to 35 minutes until the crust is light brown.

**In a pinch, Safeway frozen pie crusts really aren’t bad (see, I’m not impossible to please). Just be sure to prebake the bottom crust for 10 minutes to ensure that is stays crisp after you add the filling; invert the second crust (two are packaged together) on top and form over the pie filling.


08 May 2010

Spending Time in Sunny Seattle…

It really was mostly sunny when I visited Seattle the first weekend of April. I crashed at a friend’s house in the posh (and bustling!) Capitol Hill neighborhood, complete with a Trader Joes’ Market within walking distance and a bevy of chic boutiques, gift shops, and coffee houses everywhere I looked. When walking down the right street and in the right direction, I even caught the occasional glimpse of both the mountains and the Space Needle. This area probably won’t be on your list of places to visit when you go, but it’s just a train ride and short bus ride away if you want to slum it yuppie-style like a (salaried, mid-30s) native. Then again, there are probably many cool neighborhoods here.

There are lovely fish markets galore. If you are like me, landlocked for the majority of the year and thrown into a frenzy at the thought of eating fresh seafood, you might be tempted to get wrapped up in finding “just the right” place. Don’t – you are paying for that ambience. Go to the neighborhood, working-class places that put all of their energy into simply prepared fresh clams, oysters, and the like. It’s all delicious, the price is right, and you’re eating with the locals instead of the other tourists studiously following their guidebooks’ suggestions. City Fish Co. in the Pike Place Market is a good one to try. And with a large and diverse Asian population in the Pacific Northwest, you also can’t go wrong with fresh, local Vietnamese, Japanese, or Thai food. Go for the street vendors and food carts in the markets—they know what they’re doing.

Speaking of the Pike Place Market, if you shop anyplace, go here. I am not a big shopper, because unless I am purchasing food, I am incredibly cheap, but even I can recommend this place. Located at 1531 Western Avenue and thereabouts, this complex has a mind-boggling selection of shops, restaurants, and –yes—fresh food stands. With a lovely riparian view and an active community culture thrown in, you can stuff your face, buy your unique gifts for the nieces and nephews back home, and get in some great people (and nature) watching.

Coffee is everywhere you go in Seattle. I like coffee and consider myself moderately picky about it quality, but to me, Peet’s (actually a California chain), Starbucks, Seattle's Best, Tully’s…they all taste relatively similar. Everyone picks their own “home team” and is convinced it’s the best, but it’s all good in Seattle. So let’s skip beating the dead horse and talk instead about…tea! There are some great tea shops throughout Seattle. A charming stroll in downtown Seattle will lead you to Perennial Tea Room(1910 Post Aly), filled with a wall full of different canisters of classics and special blends. Tea service includes a tray with a small pot of tea, a beautifully decorated cup, a spoon and a bottle of honey, a small pitcher of cream, and a timer to get the steep just right. The double bergamot Earl Grey was amazing, as was their special-blend herbal tisane called coconut grove, a blend of hibiscus, dehydrated coconut, and chamomile.

And back in the Capitol Hill neighborhood is Remedy Teas, a hip, urban basement shop at 345 15th Ave. E. They have a smaller selection of loose teas to drink hot or cold, but they really excel in the smoothies and tea lattes. I had a rooibos latte that was dessert-worthy, and my friends opted to start their mornings with smoothies chocked full of fresh fruits, green tea, and wheat grass. These drinks will pack at least as much of a wallop as a cuppa around the corner at ‘bucks.

01 May 2010

rental car adventures, part 2

Driving back down to the capital in the dark the next morning, I discovered some charming character traits of my sweet-ass rental ride.
1. The inside light doesn’t come on when you open the door.
2. The dashboard lights don’t seem to have a corresponding knob to turn them on.
3. There is no ice scraper anywhere.

Completed with the facts that
1. The sun doesn’t rise until 7:30, and it is currently 6:15, and
2. There is frost on the windows, because it is October 4th in the northern Midwest,

this means that
1. I can’t see to read my map to get out of this weird, twisty neighborhood where all the houses look the same,
2. I can’t see how fast I’m driving until an hour into my trip, and
3. I have to use my driver’s license to scrape the windows.
Oh, and did I mention the fog? It’s alright, it had all burned off by the time I reached the airport.

In the airport, there are no screens announcing departure gates. But it’s a small airport and no one else seemed concerned that they were drifting aimlessly, so I just went with the herd to the security screening area. I had long ago given up checking bags, despite the 3-1-1 liquid and gels rule, so I knew I was running the risk of being frisked or arrested at any point for my anti-poofing hair creme. What can I say? I hate the frizz. In fact, I did get stopped, but only for that blasted jar of pickles Marian apparently thought I had to have. I did not, so no loss, but it is perhaps ironic that while searching for, and eventually confiscating, the terror-loving pickles, the little security dude (complete with “Look, Mom, I’m all growed up!" peach fuzz ‘mustache’) missed the cosmetics bag full of toothpaste, hair creme, face creme, liquid soap, and a 6-ounce bottle of perfumed hand creme floating around in my carry-on. It’s a good day for beauty.


Now I am sitting at my gate (as it turns out, you just keep walking in a straight line until you see your arrival city on a sign) with a woman talking loudly on the phone to someone at home who is apparently in charge of loading the dishwasher, and he seems to be having trouble. I am also sitting back-to-back with a woman holding a small dog-ish creature, so inbred it can’t open its mouth normally or breathe. (A pug? Or some tiny bulldog? I don’t keep up with these things.) She very much loves this little furry beast, and coos things like, “No, you ain’t goin’ nowhere, you rascal!” Madam, I want to say, this thing cannot even handle the task of breathing in and out easily; it cannot understand you.

Nearby there is also a husky-voiced, salt-of-the-earth woman who insists on loudly and gleefully narrating every move and assumed emotion said beast is experiencing. She, too, loves this stranger’s dog. She loves it so much she is talking to no one about what a “pistol” he is. There is also a small child nearby who is apparently being murdered from the sound of things, or else his/ her parents are trying that whole “let it work itself out” tact. I don’t think that works.

But, here’s the weird part: I’m pretty sure I’m sitting next to John Waters. Of course, he really does belong in this scene. Classic. I want to tell him how much I loved Pecker (I’ll forgive Dirty Shame–he’s still brilliant), but he doesn’t look like he wants to be bothered. So, I hope he will appreciate my silence and complete lack of eye contact. Someone as nuanced as him is bound to notice. And the fact that I have showered and am not talking loudly in speech peppered with curse words and double negatives–or would he prefer that?

I sneak a peek while he’s texting– oh yeah, that’s John Waters with that pencil mustache in those red skinny jeans and oversized pinstriped blazer. Who else could it be? This guy is weird! And I’m not going to say a word to him. Playin’ it cool. Just as I am silently patting myself on the back for my decorum, I sense that he is turned my way in my peripheral vision. He is, he is! Be cool. I look up and smile, half-heartedly, the way they must do at cool-person parties ( I am guessing because I have never been to one), and I see he is looking down at my plastic, scuffed Payless pumps with an expression that is part pity, part fascination: "I love your shoes".