Sunday, September 29, 2013

It Sure Feels a Lot Like Monday

Sunday, 29 September 2013

6:30 am      Alarm goes off. Train to Glory on KUNM (Black gospel music on our local NPR station). I haven't heard Cecilia Webb since I was in graduate school. I wonder WHY I woke up so early on Sunday mornings in graduate school. I mean, seriously, back then, I didn't work. I only went to school. Why did I really need to wake up early on Sundays to work??

6:45 am      Get out of bed. Boy, it's freezing in this house! I wonder when we are going to turn the heat on. It's not even October 1st yet, but it's sure cold.

6:46 am      Brush teeth, wash face, gather chef's stuffs (chef's coat, knife kit, Green Bay hat, bright green tennies)

7:00 am     Sit down to breakfast prepared by my sweet hubby: scrambled eggs and toast with jam. Barely able to choke down breakfast because I'm nervous for my first shift in the student cafe. Why is it that I'm always so nervous to try new things? This doesn't come naturally to me.

7:15 am     Help Andrew with the football picks for the week. We won last week(!) so the pressure is off because we've broken even now, but it would sure be sweet to win again! One sure pick every week: Seattle. I read an article before the season started about the Seahawks, Pete Carroll's coaching philosophy and Russell Wilson's approach to football. For the record, I am smitten with Russell, and I even have an app on my phone called "Ask Russell." You gotta love that guy!

7:30 am      Head to campus. Drive PAST my office. Think about how different a Monday, or any morning, would be if I worked at a restaurant instead of in an office.

7:50 am      Hello folks! I walk into the kitchen to report for my volunteer shift at the student-run cafe, and enthusiastically greet the other students with a "good morning!". No response...

8:01 am      I quickly learn that my fellow culinary students are not used to being awake, let alone ready and standing upright, at 8:00 am on a Sunday. My enthusiasm is not that welcomed.

8:05 am      I am, of course, petrified. What should I do? I don't know...  I find a Midwestern-sympathizer in a Green Bay cap (I am also sporting a Green Bay hat because who really wants to root for the Vikings? I have more loyalty than most to my home state but the Vikings have reached their limits). Anyway, I find someone who can tell me what to do. I start by making an egg base. I cracked four trays of eggs into a China cap, a perforated metal sieve, and as far as I can tell, a racist kitchen term for a strainer. I blame the French (see Chinois).

8:45 am     Egg base done. Time to find a new task. I'm assigned the beet curls. Sounds fun, huh? It was totally fun and totally pretty. I've noticed that my classmates do not have a strong affinity for beauty in the kitchen. I've remarked, as one would, several times when things are pretty in the kitchen - biscuits, Duchesse potatoes, apple tarts, etc. - and I never get a response from my classmates. Am I just weird to find beauty in food? I know I'm not. I don't know why people do not respond. I guess I just haven't found "my people" yet.

Anyway, beet curls are beautiful and fun. I used a Japanese manual machine to produce curly strands of yellow and red beets. So pretty!

I had to peel and curl about 15 huge beets so this took a while.

As I'm peeling the yellow beets, I take off my nail on my thumb. The vegetable peeler cuts through the latex glove I'm wearing, and cuts my nail. I doesn't hurt, but I look down at my thumb PRAYING that it won't start bleeding. I don't want to be that girl who requires medical assistance on my first day in the student cafe. Luckily, I only cut the nail and no skin. Thank you, thank you! 

9:35 am      I decide I really need to take a break. I've finished the yellow beets and the red beets are much bigger. My hand is cramping from operating the vegetable curler. I decide to take a break and go get a drink of water.

9:39 am      I walk back to the kitchen. It's empty. WTF? There used to be at least 15 people in there. Everyone has left the kitchen, and they are now sitting in the foyer listening to a lecture from the chef manager of the cafe about how unorganized the cafe is. I glance in the kitchen, notice everyone is attending the "lecture" and wonder what to do with myself. I mean, seriously, I leave for four minutes and everything changes?!?

I'm reminded of the time I took a tennis lesson at another club when I was in high school. I'm not a huge fan of trying new things. It makes me nervous when I don't know what to expect. I like to imagine what my day will be like. When there's a big blank gap, I don't like it. Anyway, I remember my mom drove me way out in the suburbs to this other club. At some point during the lesson, I needed to go to the bathroom. We were playing on an indoor court. When I walked back through the plastic "door" into the court, my group was nowhere to be seen (in front of me). I said, out loud, "Oh great, now where did they go??" The instructor said from behind me, "We're right here," with a tone of distinct judgment. I was mortified. Anyway... I continue my beet curls.

I'm back in the classroom kitchen all alone. I realize that everyone else is being paid to be here this morning. I meet a nice lady who is the only other volunteer. She lives in Pecos and works for a university in their kitchen. She really seems to know what's what. Although my experience in the kitchen is extremely limited, I've been around long enough to know that I definitely want to know the people who seem to know what's what. I chat her up. She seems very friendly. I hope I see her again.

11:15 am     I've finally finished the beet curls. Another classmate comes up to tell me I am going to join the team who will be going to the cafe to improve the organization, which the paid students were admonished for earlier by the chef supervisor. I meet two nice girls who have been in the culinary program for a little while. They also seem to know what's what.

I help with the inventory and make sure everything is in order at the cafe. I ask lots of questions so I can learn about what actually goes into working at and running a cafe. It's eye opening.

12:00 pm     We head back to the classroom. I really want to head home. It's the last day of the weekend, and I can't help but start thinking about my real Monday morning. I am too timid to actually leave and get roped into helping make granola. No problemo. I'm trying to approach every task at the kitchen as a learning opportunity. So far, all of these learning opportunities have been really fun.

One of the biggest challenges of class is knowing where all of the equipment and ingredients are, and cooking in this kind of setting as a volunteer (relaxed and non-stressful) is really helpful. I jump at the chance to try something new and learn more.

12:25 pm     After the granola is in the oven, I finally muster the courage to let our sous-chef know that I need to leave. I head home and drive back past my office.

What if this was a real Monday, and this was my job? Hmmmm....

12:45 pm    I arrive home and find Andrew busily sanding the wood for our desk in the backyard. I relate all of the details of the morning. Just one of many things I love about my husband - he's always so enthusiastic about hearing about my adventures in "the kitchen," as I like to call it.

1:25 pm     We eat a glorious lunch of yard burgers, potato chips and cornichons. We watch Seattle come back to beat Houston in overtime. Overjoyed!

2:30 pm      I shower and realize that if I don't sit down asap I might faint. I crawl into bed and sleep for several hours. I dream of being "in the kitchen," beet curls, stocks, julienned carrots, corned beef and roasted tomatoes. I wish I was still "in the kitchen."

6:15 pm     I wake up slightly. I hear muffled sounds of the television from our new tv room. I get out of bed and find Andrew sitting in the tv room in his underwear. He tells me that he had to take his clothes off in the laundry room because they were so covered in sawdust. He waited until I woke up to shower or even get his clothes from the bedroom because he didn't want to wake me up. What a sweetie!

6:17 pm     I wish that it really was Monday, and that this was my job.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Channeling Julia: Hollandaise Sauce

As a way to push outside my comfort zone, learn new things, be brave, explore options, and pursue something I feel excited about, I’m taking a culinary arts course at the local community college this semester. We meet twice a week in the evenings for three scheduled hours, although I rarely get to leave on time and we need to show up early to set up so it’s more like a ten hour a week commitment to being in class. Plus, I have chapters to read, homework to do, quizzes to study for, shifts in the student cafe to work and restaurant reviews(!) to write. We’re not learning to be better home cooks or building a repertoire of recipes, although that’s a side effect; we’re learning culinary techniques and how to maneuver in a professional kitchen.

I’ve learned that working in a professional kitchen is quite different than cooking at home - the pace, the scale, the equipment, the ingredients, the teamwork, the heat, the way time flies. I’ve already inflicted more wounds on myself at school than I have in ten years of cooking at home. We all have heard it, but it’s true - tools are sharper and pots are hotter in the professional kitchen! One of my classmates was gone for two weeks after cutting himself very badly on the electric slicer. When the paramedics showed up that night, I thought I might faint. I’ve learned to be a lot more conscientious, methodical and aware of my surroundings.

The truth is, I hadn’t expected it to be so different, although I think it’s good to be surprised and humbled sometimes. It’s part of the joy of learning new things. When you come out on the other side, you know that you worked really hard and have learned something really well. That’s what I tell myself, at least, when I feel frustrated.

I’ve read a lot of blogs about people who are going to or have gone to culinary school, scouring them for everything I can glean about what it would be like. From what I gather, culinary classes normally include some sort of demonstration or at least lecture explaining the recipes and then the students go to the kitchen and re-create what they’ve just learned about. This is not the case in my class. We are set loose each evening with a set of recipes, and that’s it. No demonstration, no instruction, no nothing. Just the skills from home that we already showed up with. As the semester has progressed, everyone has gotten more comfortable in the kitchen, but on our first night of cooking, everyone literally ran around like crazy looking for ingredients and equipment and frantically trying to produce something edible. I learned quickly to be more assertive, ask lots of questions and to shout, yes shout, in the kitchen. It was exhausting and overwhelming and I may have wanted to cry in the dry storage room at least twice. I took comfort in washing and sanitizing the dishes. At least that was something that I definitely knew how to do - it’s straightforward and has a clear beginning and end with a tangible accomplishment. What satisfaction!

We’re working our way through the five Mother Sauces, and they have been stressful to say the least. Everything we’re making I’m confident I could prepare beautifully at home in the comfort of my own kitchen, but having to produce these sauces under the stress of the school kitchen coupled with my extremely high standards for myself have led to disappointing results. My first attempt at Velouté was too thin. Luckily another classmate had pity on me and walked me through the fine points of a brown roux, and my second attempt was much better. My Espagnole was a little better, although I think it also could have been thicker, and my Béchamel was pretty good, but I’m told it is the simplest of the Mother Sauces. Tomorrow night is the dreaded Hollandaise, and tonight I’ll be brushing up on its ins and outs with Julia Child. Julia always makes me feel more confident and brave in the kitchen.

I made Hollandaise a few weeks ago at home, and it turned out perfectly. I followed Julia’s instructions to the letter, and although I was worried something would go wrong, she armed me with all of the troubleshooting tips I would need so I stayed calm. And in the end, I didn’t need those stinking trouble shooters anyway. I have a sinking feeling that things are going to go awry tomorrow night so in an effort to boost my confidence, I’m going to post about the beautiful Eggs Benedict Andrew and I made with the perfect Hollandaise and homemade English Muffins. I need to remind myself that I can do this because if there is anything that will make a sauce go south fast, it’s the smell of fear. I need to channel Julia and kick that Hollandaise into gear tomorrow night!

So, here is Julia’s Hollandaise, proof that I can make a divine Hollandaise. This is already pretty long, so I’ll post the recipe for the English Muffins later this week. For now, I just need to focus on the sauce.

Hollandaise sauce is made of egg yolks and butter and flavored with lemon juice. It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? But, as Julia writes, “It is often the most dreaded [sauce], as the egg yolks can curdle and the sauce can turn.” Yikes!

Sauce Hollandaise 
From Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck

7 ounces butter
3 egg yolks
1 Tb cold water
1 Tb lemon juice, plus additional to taste
White pepper
A bowl of cold water (just in case you need to cool off the bottom of the bowl)

Cut the butter into pieces. Melt 6 ounces (3 Tablespoons) butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Set aside.

Fill the bottom pan of a double boiler with water and bring to barely a simmer. Beat the egg yolks in the top bowl of a double boiler. Beat until they are thick and sticky, about 1 minute. Add the water, lemon juice and a big pinch of salt. Beat about 30 seconds more. Add 1/2 ounce (1 Tablespoon) cold butter, but do not beat it in.

Place the bowl on top of the pan of boiling water and stir the egg yolks with a wire whip until they slowly thicken into a cream. This will take 1 to 2 minutes. If they thicken too quickly or even suggest a lumpy quality, immediately plunge the bottom of the bowl into cold water, beating the yolks to cool them. Then continue over the simmering water. The egg yolks will have thickened enough when you can begin to see the bottom of the pan between strokes, and the mixture forms a light cream on the wires of the whip.

Immediately remove the bowl from the heat and beat in 1/2 ounce (1 Tablespoon) of cold butter. This will cool the egg yolks and stop their cooking.

Then, beating the egg yolks with a wire whisk, pour on the melted butter by droplets or a quarter-teaspoon at a time until the sauce thickens into a very heavy cream. Then pour the butter a little more rapidly. Omit the milky residue at the bottom of the pot.

Season the sauce with salt, white pepper and drops of lemon juice to taste.

Et voilà! Pas de problème, n'est-ce pa?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Enter it in the Log: Summer 2013

When I was in college, my best friend and I kept a notebook where we wrote down all of the funny things that happened to us or that we saw or overheard. Sometimes things are just too funny that they have to be recorded somewhere. Another one of our girlfriends suggested, jokingly, that we get ourselves a log to keep track of all of the stuff we thought was so funny. When something really funny happened or we overheard a hilarious conversation, she’d shout “Enter it in the log!” Well, as you can imagine, those logs are even more hilarious to look back at now and are so fun to reminisce with.

One of the things I like best about blogging is having an online journal that I can browse through and remember what we've been up to. This blog is my log now where I can record songs I'm playing on repeat, great meals I've had and adventures too. Sometimes, I just scroll back through old posts to see what we were up to last year at this time. As someone with a terrible memory and an even more terrible track record of keeping photo albums up to date, this little blog is a great scrapbook for me and Andrew.

Here are some things from lately that I want to capture in the log...

Summer happy hours on Saturday night on the front porch. Late dinners after the sun goes down and staying up late.

Sweet, sweet Elsa. Elsa hanging out with me each morning while I get ready. She’s a loyal girl, that one, and she is so sweet to just sit there and watch me so intently each day. I tell her about my day and tell her that she is so wonderful. She tilts her head back and forth listening and trying to understand what I’m telling her. And speaking of Elsa, I sure don't want to forget this summer's new game E-pong!

Walking the dog girls after the sun goes down and before bed. A short walk around the neighborhood to help us all sleep better.

Crossing our fingers and hoping for howls. Every time you can hear sirens, our neighbors’ dogs howl. I love a howling dog, and I’ve tried for years to get our dogs to howl, but they just aren’t into it. I don’t need a whole song, just some occasional howling. BUT, lately, Lola will howl a little when she hears the dogs next door howling. And if we are REALLY lucky, Elsa will give out a little howl too. Every time we hear sirens now, we stop what we’re doing, become totally silent and still,cross our fingers, and wait for the howls. The first time it happened was a saturday morning. We were still in bed, and Lola howled for a few seconds and then went back to sleep. Andrew and I looked at each other in awe and mouthed “Oh MY GOD” to each other (If Lola hears that we are awake, she’ll want her breakfast so we need to stay quiet if we want to keep sleeping).

Making the house our own. This summer is the first time we’ve really dug into any great big house projects. We painted the bedroom a color we love and are now sleeping on a bed Andrew made for us. We hung new curtains and rearranged the furniture. We’re almost done with getting rid of the blue paint, and Andrew will make our desk this weekend. I’ve put up paint samples in the kitchen and dining room, and depending on our energy and momentum, we may keep moving through the house as long as we can have the windows open. This has been a huge change for us. As we painted over the blue, I kept saying to Andrew, “It’s like we live in a normal house!” A normal house! Yes!! Normally, we are rarely home on a weekend in the summer because we’d much rather be rafting, hiking or camping, but this summer working on the house has been wonderful.

Cooking Together. Andrew has never really been interested in cooking. He usually likes to keep me company in the kitchen, but this summer we've started planning recipes and cooking together. We've had so much fun making pasta, and a couple of weekends ago, we made eggs benedict with homemade English muffins. We followed Julia Child's recipe for Hollandaise to the letter. At one point, I was vigorously whisking the egg yolks while Andrew added the melted butter 1/8 teaspoon at a time. We looked at each other, realizing the ridiculousness of it and laughed, but I think that meal is one of the very best things I've ever made. I'm looking forward to seeing what we cook up this fall!

My brother's visit. I've been in New Mexico almost ten years, and up until this year my siblings haven't shown very much interest in visiting. First my sister visited for Thanksgiving last fall, then my brother came for skiing in January, and THEN, he came back again this summer for rafting. I didn't really get along very well with my brother when we were kids, but it is so fun to me to know him as an adult. He is hilarious, outgoing and so much fun to be around. I had to be in Indianapolis for work during one of our scheduled trips so he came down and took my spot on the river. He had a great time learning to row and meeting everyone. I love it when my old life and new life mingle like that.

Visitors in general. Speaking of visits from loved ones, we've been so lucky this year. This is really more of a fall, winter, spring, summer thing to remember. It's been quite the year, and we've had visits from my sister, my mom, my brother-in-law, my brother, my oldest friend Rosie and her boyfriend, and my father-in-law!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Martini Night in America

It’s currently raining and chilly in Santa Fe. I’m sure it will warm up again before fall really hits, but I’m loving this weather. The cooler air combined with the fact that we’re now safely in September means that Martini Night in America is back at our house!

During the fall and winter, we have a little routine for Friday nights at our house. After we get home from work and dogs have been walked, Andrew makes us a fire and I make us martinis. We have a little happy hour in front of the fire and then we usually make a nice comfort food like pizza, hot dish or one of our favorite tomato soups. We watch old James Bond movies, sip our martinis and cozy up. I love Martini night, and because it’s more fun to say, I’ve named it Martini Night in America.

We celebrated our first of the season last Friday night. It was warm and sunny so we celebrated on the front porch, but this week, we can cozy up in our new living space.

Here’s the recipe for my favorite martini, which my brother-in-law named the Santa Fean. It is tart and has a nice zip from the lime juice. And it is soooo pretty!

The Santa Fean
A Tart Cherry Martini

3 ounces vodka
6 ounces tart cherry juice (make sure to get tart cherry)
Grand Marnier
1 fresh lime

Set out two martini glasses. Wash and dry lime. Using a peeler, shave off two pieces of lime zest and put one in each glass.

Fill shaker with ice. Pour in vodka, cherry juice and a generous splash of Grand Marnier (about 1 ounce) . Squeeze the juice from the lime into the shaker. I like a very citrusy drink so I like to rub the lime on the inside of my glass as well. Close shaker and shake vigorously until liquid is chilled. Pour and serve.

Makes 2 martinis.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Desert Vernacular

As I was flying into Albuquerque last week and we started our descent, the cabin started filling with excitement. I could overhear various conversations - folks returning home, folks on vacation, and some just happy to be off the plane for a while before the next leg of their journey...

Southwest Mesa 
North Valley 

Just a week earlier, I had been going the other way. Toward the Midwest, toward the green and lush landscapes and humid air. A different set of overheard conversations...

Prior Lake 
Eden Prairie 
Northeast Minneapolis 

It made me think about the words we use so often here in the desert. Words that were mostly unspoken by me ten years ago.


Words that were foreign to me at one time and are now so integral to life in the Rio Grande Valley.


Landscapes that used to seem lifeless and bleak are now familiar and beautiful.

pinon and juniper (P&J) 

Even describing our house to Minnesotans is a vocabulary exercise.


Now I crave chile and posole and sopapillas. I walk my dogs along acequias and down arroyos and climb peaks and vacation on the mesa. I’ll always be a Minnesotan at heart, but I live in New Mexico now.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Labor Day 2013

Sunset at the Pizza Farm

I go home for Labor Day every year. I go for the State Fair but also because now that I’m married and Christmases alternate each year, it’s the last thing that I do the same every year with my family and friends in Minnesota. I’ve written about this before when I first started this blog - Labor Day is my constant.

This year’s visit seemed to go too fast. They always do, but this one in particular just flew by. I feel like I couldn’t really wrap my head around everything and live in the moment the way I wanted to. I wasn’t thinking about the next thing, as I often do when I have trouble living in the moment, but I was thinking about the last thing. I felt like every moment, I had the thought in the back of my head, “Oh my gosh, this is going so fast and we’re already on to the next thing. I wish the last thing could have lasted longer.” It was a sad feeling to leave Wednesday night not knowing when I’ll be home again and when I’ll see most of my favorite people again.

I was going to put together a list of highlights from this year’s visit, but then I realized that everything is about what we ate. So, here are our FOOD highlights from this year (other than the food at the Fair of course).

Drinks at the Bradstreet and Dinner at Heidi’s - this was a perfect evening with beautiful and thoughtfully prepared food and drinks. I was in heaven.

I had a gimlet with Plymouth gin and fresh black and raspberries at the Bradstreet. The atmosphere lends itself to bourbon and whiskey drinks, but since it was a last hurrah for summer, I went with something lighter. Whenever I go to the Bradstreet, I’m always impressed with how knowledgeable the staff is about liquor and how enthusiastic they are about explaining all of the drinks. I also like their cute glassware collection. When I commented about this, our server agreed that cute glasses can really take a drink to the next level. Unfortunately, we were a little short on time so we only had time for one drink before heading to dinner.

I had never eaten at Heidi’s before and wasn’t really sure what to expect. This place knocked my socks off. Definitely a star! We had a tasting menu with four courses and there were four choices per course. My only complaint was that there wasn’t much information on the menu so I had a ton of questions for the server. She answered all of my questions enthusiastically, but I didn’t want to overwhelm her so I still have lots more for the next time we visit.

Remember how, just a few short weeks ago, I placed tongue on my list of foods I don’t want to learn to like? Well, never say never because my first course was pickled tongue. If I hadn’t known from the menu, I wouldn’t have guessed it was tongue. It tasted kind of like a brisket with a thick, rich sauce that seemed to have some chipotle in it. My favorite parts of the first course were trying something so out of the ordinary for me and the tiny sprigs of micro cilantro on top. They were a burst of fresh, citrusy flavor.

For my second course, I had a seared diver scallop with rosemary infused foam on the side. My main course was a lamb shank and for dessert I had the strawberry beet soup with a scoop of blueberry ice cream. I wish I had more details about all of the flavors and sauces, but like I said, I didn’t want to overwhelm the waitress. One proud moment during dinner came when I could successfully identify the squid ink on the side of my scallop by sight and taste.

All of the dishes were seasoned perfectly and so beautifully plated. (No photos because I didn’t want to be rude.) When I have a meal this good, I realize how infrequent it is that you get such a perfect restaurant meal. They are so often poorly seasoned or poorly presented or have something that is off about them.

Since I was so impressed with everything, I hesitate to even mention it, but Andrew’s second course was an heirloom tomato salad with cheese and it wasn't very good. The tomatoes were not ripe, the cheese didn’t go with the tomatoes and there was a marshmallow served on the side of the plate. All around a weird and disappointing dish, but other than that, everything was a winner.

In addition to the great food, I also really enjoyed having a great view of the kitchen. The dining room is next to the kitchen which has big windows so you can see right in. It was so fun to see what was happening behind the scenes in a professional kitchen. What a treat it would be to get to work there every night!

Pizza Farm - Although it's a long trek out to Stockholm, Wisconsin, the pizza is phenomenal. It’s also become a little annual tradition! We had pizza with pork shoulder, sweet onions, hot peppers, tomatoes, and Eau Galle Italian cheese. Yum!

A Labor Day taco party - I always feel a twinge of sadness when people talk about their holiday barbecues and family parties so I love to be home for the Labor Day party at my parents’ house. We had a taco bar with all the fixings, and I made watermelon margs, guacamole, easy salsa and tasty refried beans - a necessary component in the crunchy cheesy gorditas that Rosie taught us to make. Canned refried beans gross me out and seem to have a lot of salt. These are easy and quick to whip up, and you know what's in them. If I had been at home, I would have grabbed some homemade beans from the freezer.

Refried Beans
Adapted from Table for Two

3 cans pinto beans with liquid
½ stick butter
1 small onion, chopped
½ Tablespoon red pepper flakes
½ Tablespoon paprika
2 Teaspoons brown sugar
1 Tablespoon salt + more to taste

Heat beans with their liquid and one cup of water in a pot. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer.

While beans are simmering, melt butter in a sautee pan. Sautee onions, red pepper flakes, paprika and brown sugar for 5 minutes. Drain beans, reserving one cup of liquid. Pour beans back into the pot with the reserved liquid, sauteed onions and salt. Using an immersion blender, lightly blend the beans until smooth and creamy. Adjust seasoning as desired. (Original recipe calls for quite a bit more salt than is listed here.)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Fair 2013!

See you next year

Over 236,000 people attended the Fair on September 1 this year. A Fair record! Among all of those people were four friends - oldest friends celebrating 26(!) years of friendship and our partners who love the Fair as much as we do and who have fallen right in stride with our circuit and annual traditions.

The big news from this year’s Fair is that Rosie and I were interviewed by the Discovery Channel for a documentary on fried foods at the Fair. Although I really tried to sell the camera lady on the oldest friend angle, she insisted on interviewing us separately. It was great fun to share our enthusiasm. She asked me if I could give her a tagline about fried food so I told her my line about cheese curds, and she LOVED it! The camera lady told us the documentary would air sometime after January 2014, and that the producer would determine which footage is used. She said, and I’m not making this up, “Just because you two are so enthusiastic and cute, doesn’t mean I can guarantee anything.” She said we’d be contacted if they use our footage so fingers crossed!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

State Fair Foods: Pronto Pups and Fried Cheese Curds

Since leaving Minnesota, I’ve found over the years that pronto pups and cheese curds are a real conversation starter. They come up every year around this time as our annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair approaches. By August each year, the excitement is almost intolerable and pretty much everyone I interact with leading up to the Fair hears about my trip. And let’s be honest, you (well, at least I) can’t really talk about the Fair without talking about the food. I know this about myself and have tried to exercise a lot of willpower this year to hold back. The other night in culinary class, it took all of my self control not to tell my chef instructor all about what I would be eating at the Fair instead of attending class. He’s a chef, surely he wants to hear about my culinary joys, right? No, I don’t think so.

Pup Toast 2013

When the subject of Fair food comes up, I always get lots of questions about pronto pups and cheese curds. Pronto pups are easy to “get” - they are like corn dogs only with a pancake batter rather than corn flour. They are not as bready and mealy and much better, in my opinion. They are made in front of you by teenagers who dip the hot dog on a stick into the batter and then place it on a carousel of prontos slowly spinning through the deep fryer. They are served piping hot off the carousel and painted with mustard and/or ketchup if you want it. They are best eaten pronto! I’ve actually seen corn dogs at other state and local fairs that have been pre-made (or even worse, frozen and then reheated) and are just sitting under a heat lamp waiting to be eaten. We wouldn’t settle for that at the Minnesota State Fair, but it’s a non-issue because the demand is so high that there’s no time for a pronto to be sitting anyway.

Cheese curds on the other hand are apparently more obscure. Some people have heard of them, but few have tried them. Reactions range from disgust - “You eat those?!?” - to curiosity - “What exactly is a curd?” - to excitement - “I am going to visit you in Minnesota just to try cheese curds! (you gotta love those friends!)”

Honestly, I’m always surprised when people aren’t enthusiastic about cheese curds. For the uninitiated, the word curd seems to be a put off. Others can’t imagine liking fried cheese (although how this is possible is beyond me). And some people just think it’s so weird and foreign that they have no idea what I’m talking about. So, let’s talk cheese curds because if you don’t already have them in your life, you’re missing out!

Let’s start with the curd. I realize it’s not the most appetizing word, but it’s also not gross, and I have a pretty sensitive gross meter. The curds are little nuggets of cheese that haven’t been pressed into a mold to form a block of cheese. They can be eaten fresh, and if you’re lucky they will be really fresh and squeek between your teeth, which according to the internet is caused by elongated protein strands rubbing against the enamel of your teeth.

When it comes to cheese curds, fresh is good, but fried is better! There’s a sentence for the ages. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, we like to dip our curds in batter and deep fry them. The result is a crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside, salty, greasy, tasty treat. They are terrible for you, but they taste great, especially with a cold Grainbelt sitting on the patio of the Ball Park Cafe on Underwood Street during the two greatest weeks of the year. It’s a once a year delicacy, and honestly, every year, I wake up the next morning wishing for more.

I’ve noticed that within the past ten years or so, you can get fried cheese curds at bars and diners throughout the year. I’ve never been too impressed with restaurant curds, and anyways, I like to save my cheese curd eating for the Fair. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and for me at least, I think cheese curds are best as a once a year thing. 

We always buy our cheese curds from the Mouth Trap (cute name, yes?) in the Food Building, but we wanted to make sure we weren’t missing out. We've tried the other options, but the unanimous conclusion amongst the taste testers (me, Rosie and Andrew) was that Mouth Trap is the best. Best at the Fair, and therefore, Best in the WORLD. If you ever have the chance to try them, do yourself a favor and order two baskets.
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