Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Doug's Soul Food

"Bless this bread, bless this meat, bless this belly 'cause I's gon' eat!"
Reverend Williams, Soul Food - 1997

I love my Mom. She is a far better parent than I or anyone deserves. She's a good friend, a reliable go-to person when help is needed and a fabulous mother-in-law to my Wife.

But her cooking...

Mom hates to cook. To be fair, meals in our house were never late and there was plenty of it but she was not, I'm sorry to say, a particularly inspired cook. She's got a repertoire of about a dozen dishes with maybe 8 standard everyday ones. I suspect what drove me to being a Foodie as I grew up was the constant curiosity about new food that can only come from such a limited palette growing up. When I started going out to restaurants I was immediately the one who wanted to try all the exotic places. I was forever trying to talk my friends into going for Thai food, or Indian, or Nepalese or Japanese.

Doug's Soul Food cooks like I wish my Mom cooked. It cooks like I want to cook. It cooks like you wish your Mom cooked. On the front of the menu, along with a picture of the owners mother, is the motto, "Not Mom's, But Close!". It is humbly implied that this means they are not quite as good as Mom. I think the reality is closer to your Mom not being quite as good as they are.

Like good home cooking, you will find no fancy ingredients at Doug's. There is no curly parsley on the plates, there is no exotic ingredients in the food. What winds up on your plate is the fundamentals; chicken, pork, flour, butter, salt, pepper, eggs, and cheese. You are not paying for expensive ingredients, you are paying for technique.

I make pretty good fried chicken. It's one of those dishes I wanted to conquer right from the start. I think I went through about 15 or 20 derivations of the coating, the brine, the cooking method before I settled on what is now, I think, Version 2.7. Took me two years to get that far and it's still not quite finished, the hardest part still eludes me.

When you take a bite of nice, crispy friend chicken, especially a fried drumstick, you should be able to easily bite off a chunk that has some meat and some crispy, delicious fried coating in it (the best part of fried chicken, as we all know). What you are trying to avoid is the entire skin and all the breading sliding off the piece in one mouthful. The breading has to adhere to the skin and the skin has to stay on the chicken. This is not easy. Differences in temperatures, fat layers under the skin melting in the heat and providing lubricant, the wet batter, the dry batter, the fact that skin and flour don't chemically like each other and getting it all done, cooked to GBD perfection without overcooking or undercooking the meat... is a flouncing, flamboyant, flourecent BITCH. I can do it about half the time (I think it has to do with how long you leave the batter on)

The fried chicken I had at Doug's was perfect. I took a bite and left a perfect bite sized hole in the chicken. Every bite had some breading in it till I was done. That is a damn fine trick.

Soul Food has been in our state for a long time but I only began seeking it out after I began reading Southern cookbooks and watching Southern cooking shows. It was love at first taste. More than that. I'm starting to suspect I lived there in a past life. I fell head over heals for greens, love sweet potato pie and I'm dying to try grits (if I could find somewhere that does them well).

My Bride an I went to Doug's on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. We were the only two patrons and enjoyed the undivided attention of the owners. Doug's does not have a large menu but it has a lot of open-ended variables such as "Sauteed Vegitables" which could mean whatever they have that day, "Cakes" which included two selections and "Pies" which included five. The protien options are BBQ Pork Spare Ribs, Perch, Catfish, BBQ Beef Spare Ribs and Southern Fried Chicken. Every meal comes with 2 sides and a starch which are cornbread (a cornbread muffin actually), dinner roll or hush puppies (little deep fried seasoned dough balls for those who have never had). The dining room is tiny, tidy and cute with perhaps a dozen tables, a counter and classy table settings with white tablecloths.

As I've already alluded, the chicken was perfect. This is not KFC chicken. Salt and Pepper are no secret. This is good home cooking. Crispy, juicy and perfectly cooked. The hush puppies had a little kick and were another layer of crispy fried goodness. The greens were nice, tender and just bitter enough to be complex without being icky.

My Bride ordered the BBQ Pork Spare Ribs, Mac & Cheese, candied sweet potatos and cornbread. She was nice enough to let me steal a few bites of everything (in the name of science of course).

Note, in the right hand corner of the web page, it says something about me being an empiricist? Well, that's why I have to say... this is not Barbecue. Barbecuing is a cooking style that involves the application of low heat and smoke over a long period of time. Real Barbecue is famous for taking cheap, tough pieces of meat and turning them into tender, smoky, flavorful piles of goodness and love. I do not think that Doug's has a barbecue pit in the back.

Never the less, the ribs were tasty, tender-but-satisfying and possessed of a nice tangy sauce. No, it's not technically barbecue, but it's good.

My Bride raved about the Mac & Cheese and it was pretty damn good. I suspect some Velvetta was used, and it really did taste like something you threw together in your kitchen in a hurry, but it's the kind of home recipe that other people want a copy off. She plans on making both her sides Mac & Cheese when we go back. The Candied Sweet Potatoes were good, but she makes them better.

Now, I'm not normally a dessert person. Restaurant desserts, especially in this new era of "Death by Chocolate with Chocolate Ice Cream, Chocolate Sauce on Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Sprinkles and shaved Chocolate with Chocolate Mouse served on a Chocolate plate with a Chocolate fork", are not big with me. I am, however, a big fan of PIE. To me, it is the one of the Ultimate comfort foods. It's my Death Row dessert. I want the taste of a cherry/apple cream pie lingering in my mouth as they throw the switch.

Such a whore for pie am I that when it came time to decide on dessert, I took a piece of candy from the fuckit bucket and doubled down. Sweet Potato Pie and Apple Pie for me, the infamous "Edna's Lemon Cake" for My Bride.

The Sweet Potato pie was perfect. Soft, custardy and just sweet enough to accent the potato.

The apple pie was excellent as well. Note the flaky crust? I couldn't help but think that a few notes could be taken by LMNO Pies...

The dark secret my Bride waited to tell me till after we had left Doug's is that she immediately suspected that this was a doctored cake mix. Aunt Edna's cake is probably a yellow cake mix with some lemon zest, lemon juice and a sugar glaze on the outside. If you have a problem with such a thing, then consider yourself warned. If not, then good, cause it was damn good cake and I'd hate to think of you missing it.

Doug's Soul Food is another example of a place that isn't WOW food. It's not trying to impress you, it's trying to feed you and fill you up. This is not the kind of place to take an out of town guest if you want to impress them with fancy local cuisine. But on a cold fall afternoon, after a long and wearysome day, when you just don't feel like cooking and you're maybe feeling a little homesick, stop by Doug's. It's pure comfort food done right.

Friday, October 3, 2008


"Oh! hookah of the magic bowl,
Thou dost bring me greatest pleasure, Who likes not thee, hath not a soul, And can know of joy no measure. Thy fragrance brings me visions bright-- Dispels the shadows of the night."
- G. Frank Lydston

One of the Joys Of Madison is that we have such a weird and mixed culture. The word "diversity" has recently been politicized beyond recognition so it's starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth but you know what I mean.

We have numerous cultural enclaves and most of them have brought their food with them. Pretty much all of Asia has made the party, Ze Germans and the rest of Europe are here of course, as are a general representation of our African brethren, those crazy guys from the Caribbean, and just about everyone in between.

has a "Mediterranean" menu that is something of a fib. Read as having a few Greek, Italian, Lebanese and Middle-Eastern recipes with a lot of seafood and some mandatory Midwestern staples (because restaurateurs feel like people will set the place on fire if there is no hamburger on the menu... sheesh) like a Tenderloin and Shrimp Scampi. They even have a Friday Fish Fry.

Having had the food however, I'd be willing to bet there is a Lebanese or Greek cook in the back, doing some very fine work.

We went to Hookah on a Sunday night with our friend Jim. Jim was kind enough to treat us after I scraped 423,827 viruses off two of his computers.

The establishment is broken up into a bar area where you can smoke cigarettes and a dining room that has it's own bar area, where you can't smoke cigarettes but you can smoke the restaurants namesake, the Hookah or water pipe. There are about a dozen tables as well as a room full of cocktail tables/couch/settee groupings more suited for drinking and smoking than food. It's a very casual environment, a number of small TV's are set around, the booths are very Buddha friendly and admitted my large belly with comfort.

Since Jim was paying, we took relentless advantage of the bar service (to be fair, with Jim's urging). It is thereby that I can report that the Bartender/waiter (it was Sunday) mixes a very solid Martini. I give it about a 6.5 out of 10. Good for a restaurant. I also appreciate that they served their drinks in smaller 5 ounce glass. I don't equate quantity for quality in a cocktail and I think a smaller drink is more refined and responsible. Now a days places serve with 8 or 12 ounce cereal-bowl-on-a-stick glasses that make a "three martini lunch" a trip to the ER for alcohol poisoning.

I had the Shawarma plate. Shawarma is one of those dishes for me where once it is spotted on the menu, all debate has ended.

I love food I get to assemble and I love being able to eat with my hands (much to my Bride's Dismay sometimes). It's just more tactile and involved. Being able to tune up my little wraps of pita bread, meat, veg and condiment till I had a perfect mix of spicy, chewy, cool, creamy, rich and tangy... it's more fun than just shoveling food into my maw.

My Bride had the Mediterranean Pizza. She is a food-whore for anything with tomatoes and feta cheese involved.

To Quote My Bride,
"I loved the tanginess of the artichoke hearts in combination with the rest of the toppings. And as a lover of feta cheese, I especially appreciated how there was a nice, healthy dose of it. It's so frustrating to order something that says it includes feta and then have there be so little that you can't even taste it. Not an issue with this pizza at all."
The food, like the drinks, was solid. This is not lay-down awesome fare, this is not WOW food. This is just good food, flavorful, and just exotic enough to be interesting. The flavors are not everyday, but they are not so challenging that I couldn't eat them every night.

I get nervous not saying a place was EXCELLENT or FABULOUS or INCREDIBLE these days. People can be so dismissive and unappreciated of nuances. Not every restaurant is El Bulli or the French Laundry and gawds help me I don't want them to be. There is a place for every level of restaurant in this world and no matter what, someone out there will appreciate it.

Hookah is a great, casual, repeat restaurant and that is a rare thing in itself. I get the distinct feeling that I could go to Hookah 1000 times and never have a bad meal.

Now, food aside, after we finished our meals, the real star of the show made it's appearance.

I am a man who enjoys his tobacco products. There are few tobacco products out there that can be lit on fire and inhaled that I have not tried.

Before you begin with your healthy admonitions, let me add that I did successful quit smoking a few years ago and that now, apart from the occasional stress smoke at work and those shrinking few occasions when I find myself in a bar where smoking is allowed (now done mostly for nostalgia), I have cut myself down to the occasional pipe.

I possess a beautifully carved Meerschaum Calabash pipe and quite simply, life without some sublimely delicious pipe tobacco on occasion is not worth living.

I had, however, never tried a Hookah before, much to my shame.

As a pipe smoker, I was incredibly dubious about the idea of "flavored" tobacco. The idea of "Mint Mohito" flavored tobacco reached into the very base of my brain, clamped onto my fundamental core of cynicism and pulled HARD. In my mind, flavored tobacco is for blunt smokers and rave kids. Real tobacco has exotic names like Burley and Latikia, Black Cavendish, Golden Virginia.... not Watermelon.

I thank my Maker and good sense that I knew enough to let the more experience one in our party, Jim, make the call... and he made a beeline straight for the Mint Mohito.

Hookah tobacco is rolled in flavored molasses and is roasted by the application of small charcoal sticks rather than burned directly. combined with the passage of the smoke through the bubbling, water filled base of the device, it produces THE mildest smoke I have ever had. Great gasping lungfuls of the stuff could be inhaled with no discomfort in the least, all to the merry bubbling of the great glass tower which added a fantastic aural element to the experience.

Every tobacco product has it's own particular idiom. Cigars are best smoked after a meal and when you have extended time to relax. They are strong and flavorful as they need to be to reach your palate after it has been blasted senseless by a long period at the table. Conversation over cigars is permissible but are best suited to long winded old men as they require a minute of constant puffing to keep them lit, every few minuites, allowing you to speak your piece and retire into smoky consideration while your companion speaks theirs.

Cigarettes are best for short, excited conversations and debates. Something with a little more energy. They stay lit, but end quickly, allowing for the repeated act of theatric, incandescent relights. They also add weight and style to expansive hand gestures as they trail smoke or can be stubbed out firmly to punctuate the end of a sentence like a flaming ember for a period. The glowing inhalation, the puffing of smoke in long thin streams, short coughing gouts, sudden explosive bursts or slow, erotic swirls are all within the smokers repertoire. Ultimately, cigarettes are unsophisticated, rough and rude... but that's why we like them.

Oh, and they give you cancer, don't forget that part.

Pipes are unsuited for any conversations whatsoever. Beyond the occasional guttural grunt or short, one-word responses, one must puff rather constantly to keep ones pipe lit. This may sound like a detriment until you realize that pipe smoking requires you to be silent. Pipe smoking is best suited to silent reflection, away from other human interaction. A moment of self-indulgent solitary pleasure. And pleasure it is. There is no more flavorful, robust and potent way to take tobacco than by a pipe.

Hookah's are social creatures. To me, the idea of taking a Hookah by yourself is somewhat absurd. The passing of the pipe, the anticipation, the shared experience and shared pleasure add up to a very jolly, bubbling, social experience. I strongly recommend trying it before our Nanny State takes away all smoking privileges from us, it's poor, untrustworthy children.

In summation, Hookah is a fabulous casual experince that will not disapoint. It might not blow you away, but it will not disapoint. But do not go just for the food. Go for the social interaction in a comfortable enviroment... and the hookah.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Malt House

To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

But doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.
- Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 3, William Shakespeare

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

- Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29, Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell translation.

When I was a young and angry man, I liked quite different things than I do now. I appreciated fast cars. I listened to fast music. When I went out of a weekend, my main desire was to put myself in the vicinity of pretty girls, loud music and a reasonable amount of peril. Like many people that age, I didn't want to actually lead a dangerous life, I just wanted it to look like I did.

I have never been a BIG fan of bars or clubs, but when I did choose to go to one, it was usually loud, raucous and hopping. A lot of people like bars like that. A vast majority of people in fact. When they go out, they want their drinks cheap and their music loud. The kind of bar where one can easily get drunk and stupid. Thoughts on quality of drinks or conversation are tertiary at best. It actually makes me wonder about the state of our social society when we apparently seek to avoid talking to people by frequenting establishments where the music is to loud to hear people talking.

As I grow older, what little love I had for the loud bars has evaporated completely. I'm a Words Man, a student of the human condition. I make my way via my command of the language and my love of it. When I go out for social time, good conversation, that lost and elusive creature, is my ultimate goal. The enthusiastic exchange of ideas, the verbal sparing of a debate, the ebullience of a discovered shared interest, these are my bread and butter. All it takes is one loud band or one overblown DJ to ruin a wonderful evening.

And so, I began that search, years ago, for a quiet social venue where one may interact in a meaningful way with ones fellow humans. Luckily society has invented such institutions already. They call them "Taverns".

Actually, they call them any number of things. Pub, lounge and saloon are also used. The nomenclature is pretty hazy but in general, if you say "neighborhood bar", most people understand what you are talking about.

If that still doesn't do it for you, let me define the species.

In general, the creature will have most of the following traits: Dark wood, low lighting, bartenders with personality, above average drinks, lots of accumulated memorabilia and/or items of interest and a fierce local following who will happily bus tables and make a bouncer unnecessary (may the gawds help the stranger who bows up in a neighborhood bar, few things are more embarrassing than explaining to the cops that you got knocked the fuck out by a 65 year old ex-marine swinging a barstool).

Such establishments, once you have summoned enough testicular fortitude to brave the swivel factor, pissed a territorial circle around a bar stool and made the scene enough to earn the title "regular", are a refuge, a Sanctum Sanctorum and a home-away-from-home. I have been lucky enough to find such an establishment once in my life, and, unfortunately, I left it behind in FDL when I came down to Madison.

It's been a year and a half and I've used what little free time and free fundage I have to scour the city in search of a new watering hole.

There have been any number of failed attempts. Madison is a big city and has a lot of wonderful and not-so-wonderful establishments. Many of them are still in the running for my go-to bar but recently I found someplace that lept to the top of the list in very short order.

The Malt House was, for many, many years, the Union House Tavern, legendarily a waystop for Union soldiers on their way to Camp Randall for training and deployment in the Civil War. When Madison's East Side was the hub of Madison's industrial commerce, Union House was a beloved neighborhood bar whose fortune and fate became inexorably tied to the East Sides eventual decline. With the death of it's last owner, Earle Erhart, this local landmark boarded up and locked it's doors after 150 years.

But, Dear Reader, what may seem like a sad story is only the turning of a chapter. The only constant our weird and wonderful world offers is change. So it was that out of the ashes of an abandon Madison Icon, grew the dreams of a man named Bill Rogers. Bill is the head of the local Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild and in the old, boarded up tavern, he saw history and possibility. I didn't get a chance to meet Bill, but I'm looking forward to spending some time with someone who is probably Madison's #1 Beer Geek.

My trip to Malt House started with the Isthmus article and that familiar queasy feeling in my stomach. "A reasonably quiet place where you can sit and talk" you say? "150-plus bottles and 18 tap beers" you say? "Best whiskey bar in town" you say? All this and more adds up to potential. I love the historical backround of the place, I love the spirit of the owner. I have been known to do a little homebrewing myself so I love that it's one of our own running the place. Nobody knows beer like a homebrewer. Someone who loves beer enough to want to go through the laborious and smelly task of making it at home? There breaths the soul of a true Beer Man. I also love me some Whiskey. Irish Whiskey for preference (since it is THE BEST).

Potential like this makes me profoundly nervous. For every chance a place has to get something right, they also have a chance to doubly fuck it up. First because it's bad, second because it could have been so good.

And so, it is with great trepidation that I made my first visit to Malt House on a Friday night a few weeks ago.

The revitalization of the Near East/East Washington area is still an ongoing project whose future is still unsure. But, while this is not the best neighborhood in Madison (yet), it's weaknesses can also be it's strengths. I'm not sure if they tore something down next door to the Malt House, but they managed to get themselves a nice BIG gravel parking lot.

One of the things I hate about going to bars downtown is having to figure out where to park so I love me a nice big parking lot. I also hold that a big lot with no overnight parking restrictions is going to lead to a much safer clientele. If someone has had one too many they are far more likely to take a necessary cab home if they know that their automobile is safe and secure and someplace they can easily return to tomorrow.

I was suppose to be meeting My Bride and Lisa Who Eats Paste there at 11pm for some post-work relaxation but the ladies were dragging hindquarters and arrived in their own sweet time. This suited me however as it gave me an extended period in which to peruse the establishment and take in the setting.

I suspect quite strongly that former regulars at the Union House would barely recognize their old stomping grounds now. A thorough cleaning, refinishing and redecoration plan has left the interior cozy, strategically lit and comfortable. A large crew of enthusiastic conversationalists were gathered around 3 or 4 tables pushed together and were creating a pleasant background babble that I enjoyed.

150 beers does make for a daunting menu, 90 some whiskeys doesn't hurt either. Luckily, I'd been wanting to try a glass of Redbreast Pure Pot Still 12 Year since I'd first heard of it, so I got to indulge myself. At 6 dollars a glass, this delightful artisanal beverage is a very affordable luxury (and it was excellent, fiery with a lovely butterscotch aroma and a mellow finish). I sat and nursed my whiskey while chatting with Jaquie our charming bartendress.

From Jaquie, I learned a few entertaining facts about the establishment. Apparently the cleanup was quite a production. Many old men had smoked many cigarettes while enjoying many years of tasty beverages at the Union House and the walls and floor tiles were stained a deep nicotine yellow. The walls were scrubbed and painted but the decision was made early on to leave the famous antique bar in place, along with it's etched glass bar mirror displaying the historical Union House logo as something of a anchor to the bar's historic past.

Everything else in the bar has been redone. New fixtures, lots of tables and a truckload of exotic beer memorabilia covered the walls. The new barstools met the comfort test for my overlarge buttocks and the ladies reported the bathrooms on the girls side to be clean and comfortable. What music there was came from some kind of computerized electronic playlist that seemed to be hitting a lot of The Police's greatest hits at a tolerable backround volume that one could easily be heard over.

I eventually switched from Redbreast to Lake Louie Warp Speed Scottish Ale which was sublime.

Between the fixtures, the lighting, the crowd, the selection, the facilities and the parking, this bar has all the great fundamentals. While it has no kitchen, no grill and thereby no food, it does permit patrons to order in from any of the local establishments who deliver. As such, we ordered ourselves some dinner from another new Near East institution, Burrito Drive. Jaquie was even Janie-on-the-spot with a pile of paper plates and napkins to make our meal easier.

Now, those who know me also know that I have a deep and profound love of a good cocktail. A good mixed drink is a rare commodity in this town and honestly, the Malt House, from what I saw, is not the place to get one. Normally, I would complain about this but really, I don't think it would be fair. You might not be able to get a great mixed drink at the Malt House, but that doesn't mean you can't get a GREAT drink. 150 beers and a massive selection of Whiskey, Rum, Scotch, Gin and other exotics means that you will find something that you like, one way or another. Gawds forbid I'll just have to content myself drinking my way through their massive selection... damn my life is hard.

In the end, this is a comfortable, well appointed establishment with a proud history, profound potential for the future and a very solid foundation in both product and purpose. The Malt House is the kind of place you can call home; a catylyst in the lives of its patrons and regulars. A place where jokes will be made, tales will be told tall, eyes will meet across the room, friends will be greeted after long times apart and if they are lucky, a new chapter in the history of this place will be written.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Cloud 9 Grille

From the minute I walked in the door, I wanted this place to succeed.

Madison is growing out in all directions, looping around lakes and bureaucracy. Like all things in the natural world, it does not grow symmetrically. In some places you find dense clusters of shops, houses or parks, while other stretches are Ikebana-like exercises in empty space. The East Side is like that. Thousands of houses, huge tracts of residential neighborhoods and Sweet Fanny Adams for good local restaurants. Don't believe me? Head east off of Stoughton Road, out into the frontlines of Madison's War Against The Countryside, you will see for yourself. When I moved here over a year ago, I spent my lunch hours driving around the east side getting a feel for the land. The thought came to my head spontaneously, "Damn, this place needs a restaurant, or a bar, or a coffee shop." I'm not the only one. I've heard a number of Eastsiders complain that you've got to drive across town to get to "the good stuff".

So here we find, beyond Stoughton Road, beyond Sprecher, beyond even the Interstate, boldly striking out on the front lines, within sight of the retreating Cornfield Army, Cloud 9 Grille.

As a Foodie, I'm very judgmental when it comes to restaurants. I read too much into decor, waitstaff, plating, bar glass, lighting, sound system... even the choice of silverware. So please, Dear Reader, take my assessment with a grain of salt. Opinions vary, tastes vary, moods vary. No one person's pronunciation is going to encompass a restaurant in toto. At most, I can hope to offer you a perspective. A piece of the picture, but not it's whole. Accept this, too, as default for future restaurant reviews. Always remember, I may be full of shit.

The picture above is the sign that greets you as you walk in the door. Right there, in your face and unapologetic. This is not a motto, this is not a catch phrase, this is a declaration of War. Whoever started Cloud 9 has come to the understanding that long term financial stability and profit comes from being, not an restaurant, but an institution. You must weave yourself into the fabric of the neighborhood in such a manner as to make yourself inextricable. When Eastsiders want to step out for dinner, they should think to themselves... "I don't have to drive all the way across town to some fancy place downtown or on the Westside, I can just go to Cloud 9." When Dad wants to watch "the game," Cloud 9. When Mom wants to go out for drinks with the girls, Cloud 9. When the family wants to go out for dinner, Cloud 9. When the office crew needs someplace to go for drinks or a party, Cloud 9. A restaurant that has accomplished such a feat, (examples 1, 2 and 3), enjoy success, stability and are sources of pride for those involved and in charge. It's something of a Restaurateur's wet dream - to be the owner of a famous local restaurant.

Cloud 9 is aiming high and I would honestly love to see them succeed, but so far is not so good.

Cloud 9 is following along in the long tradition of other Sports/Fusion/Brewpub/Cocktail/Wine/Supper Club/Family/Bar/Grill/Steak House/Restaurants out there. From the Vegas wall mural, to the Moulin Rouge posters, the movie posters, Rat Pack pictures, the multiple flat screens displaying the latest Nascar race and the Cowboys/Viking game (which nobody, as far as I could tell, was watching), the Bowling and Golden Tee video games, the mandatory gas fireplace, the pub tables, the cocktail table/settee groupings, the dining tables, the booths, the wine racks, the cocktail glasses, the large tap beer selection... Cloud 9 has obviously swerved into the short-sighted, never-successful "Let's Make Everyone Happy" plan. Like so many places before it, in a good-hearted attempt to do everything, they won't be able to do one thing well.

This is seriously one of my biggest pet peeves. After watching so many other restaurants before it fail horribly, yet another business owner thinks "I'm different!" "I'm special!" "What hasn't worked for thousands and thousands of other businesses will work for me!"

Now, don't think that by any stretch I'm saying that Cloud 9 is not well-appointed. I didn't dislike a single thing about the decor. It was obviously put together by a restaurant professional. The view, blessed by a fantastic Wisconsin sunset while we ate, is to freakin' die for. I was seduced by Sinatra (or, more accurately, channel 75) playing in the background (attention restaurateurs, this is an auto +10 in my book, just so you know). I liked the low key lighting, the chairs were comfy and the whole place is laid out in zones to give it a more intimate feel. But this is nothing that any of us haven't seen before. This was pretty much every play from the modern restaurant playbook. This is a Catalog Restaurant. Everything from the floor tiles to the ceiling lights is ordered direct from a restaurant supply house. It's not an act of creation, it's an act of shopping.

What makes a neighborhood a neighborhood is its uniqueness. The streets are like whorls in a fingerprint. Environment, economy, history, culture and amenities combine to give every neighborhood a special formula that is as unique as the individuals that inhabit it.

What amazes me is how someone can live in a neighborhood and not understand that, especially in Madison. We've got very strong, very distinct neighborhoods, full of pride in these parts. For someone to open a "neighborhood" restaurant and not understand that is honestly... a little thick.

I could note that I've seen every single piece of decor in another restaurant at another time. I could note how much the place reminds me of TGI McFunsters or Granite City or even Applebees. But the best argument for Cloud 9's insipid reality is the menu.

Cloud 9? Who are you? Why should I choose you over so many other restaurants in this town? You are a restaurant after all, if a very confused one, and it all comes down to your food. What do I brag about? What do I drive across town for? When someone comes to visit, what do I say to them when we go out to dinner? "Hey, we gotta go to our local, they have got THE best.... " what?

Let's have appetizers! Are your buffalo wings better than Hooters or BW3? Are your mini bacon-cheeseburger better than the ones at Applebee's or Damon's? Are your Nacho's or fried calamari better than the ones I can get from any other restaurant (and their dog)? Homemade potato chips, that's kinda original, but Crave does it too.

Salads? From the mind-numbingly ubiquitous Iceberg to the old, old, old standby Caesar... at least it's not a Chicken Caesar (though I'm sure you could get it if you ask).

The rest of the menu suffers from the same personality disorder. Jambalaya? Really? I'm going to go to a Sports/Fusion/Brewpub/Cocktail/Wine/Supper Club/Family/Bar/Grill/Steak House/Restaurant for Creole food? Seriously? I'm sure you've got a New Orleans expat tucked in the back there that makes this, this and only this? Enchiladas? With all the great Mexican places in town, you're going to field this? Oh, I know there are those dinner parties that can't agree on where they want to eat. Some people want steak, some people want Mexican, some people want Italian. So the thought is that they can come to your place and it'll make everybody happy, right? WRONG! Fail! Anyone who wants Mexican in this town is probably used to places like Casa De Lara or Laredo's. You really think your half-assed, afterthought dish is going to satisfy? Take a stand Cloud 9! Focus! Pick a thing, do your thing and do it well! When people can't make up their mind what they want to eat, you don't say "we'll make what you want," you say "don't worry, you'll like what we make!"

The absolute capper to this is their risotto.

Real risotto is a thing of absolute beauty. When it's done correctly, when it is properly al dente and mantecato, it is one of the most wonderful, simple culinary treasures you should ever be so lucky to have. It is also very hard to make, not from a cooking standpoint, but from a restaurant standpoint. Risotto is notoriously finicky. It requires constant attention which is a demand that no dish can make in a professional kitchen. It's done when it's done and there is no ingredient other than hourglass sand that can change that. Italian restaurants that serve Risotto usually have schedules on the menu. Basically warning the diner that if you want the risotto, you have to wait till a certain time every hour, giving them the option of delaying their order so everything comes out at once. Risotto is not a side dish, it's not a starch filler. It's not like Americans think of noodles or rice with Italian or Japanese food, risotto is the centerpiece.

So when I see risotto on the menu at Cloud 9, my heart first leaps, then sinks.

It might be real risotto, but it's reheated. They have relegated this most sublime of comfort food, this legendary exotic and interesting crowd-pleaser to the realm of a side dish.

Attention Cloud 9 patrons, if you'll look to the left of the restaurant, you'll see greatness passing by... please wave. So close but yet so far.

If this place made real risotto, they should have people standing outside, holding signs that read "Check it out, REAL risotto!" or "Holy Fuck! Risotto!" But no, it was slapped unceremoniously on the plate like a scoop of lunch lady mashed potatoes (which I had, BTW). It was okay, but reheating is not kind.

All of this criticism has probably led you to think that I didn't like the restaurant. But here is the mind-blowingly stupid part... the food, was good.

Just because the place don't know who or what it is, don't mean the crew can't cook.

Not only was the place well appointed, our waitress was an excellent example of the species, both kind and considerate. She unabashedly warned us that due to a sudden busy spurt, the kitchen was in the weeds when we sat down. I appreciate that, rather than cover it up or try to make excuses, she was very upfront and matter-of-fact.

We started off with the White Cheddar/Sweet Corn fondue.

Good temp, good texture, good taste. My Bride has her own spin on our dinner over at Insert Pithy Title Here and we are in agreement regarding the sharpness of the cheese. Melting cheese makes it lose flavor. This would have benefited from a sharper cheese. It also should have come with a bottle of hot sauce. Cloud 9 obviously only has one fryalator that they use for everything because the homemade tortilla chips tasted like Friday fish-fry. I actually enjoyed that, it reminded me of some tasty childhood bar food, but others might not be so kind. All and all it was delicious. But it was also cheese that you ate with deep fried food, how was that ever going to be bad? It's not particularly inspired. It follows in the current tried-and-true restaurant trick of fatting foods up, but hey, sometimes that's not a bad thing.

This was a damn good steak. I asked for Medium Rare and that is what I got. Honestly, I wish that wasn't a big deal, but it is. So many other places couldn't find medium rare if the cow was alive and giving them a play by play as it cooked. That speaks to someones grillardin. Note the mashed potatoes... kinda lunch lady ain't they? They were good, however... fatted up with butter and cream as you would expect.

I don't want to mention dessert, 'cause... I ate it, and I shouldn't have. It was teh awesome.

Afterward, we retired to the bar where an indifferent bartender poured us a pair of grossly overpriced rail drinks that were adequate, but hardly worth the price. 7 dollars for a rail cocktail is way too much. I can get a beautifully muddled Mojito at Jade Monkey for 5. Come on folks. I know the bar is where a restaurant makes its money, but remember that neighborhood places have to be reasonable. Remember, repeat business. Your prices should be on par with other local establishments and Jade Monkey is packed. Take a lesson.

This was a good meal. It was good food made by a skilled crew which makes this all the worse.

I have nothing to recommend this place that I can't say about so many other places in Madison. They are not special, they are not unique. The food was good but nothing stood out. The menu said nothing. Nothing in particular anyway. They don't speak for Sprecher or the Eastside. If someone put me on the spot and asked me what Cloud 9 has that nobody else does? I got nothing.

Maybe an identity crisis.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

I Love These Guys.

Jamie and Adam are on my hero list. Part and parcel proof that Geeks and Engineers are the masters of the modern age. Stick around to the end, the high-speed shot is incredible.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sun Prairie Corn Festival

I hate corn.

As an educated Foodie, I can talk your ears off for hours about the destructive effects of Monoculture and evils of High Fructose Corn Syrup. I can expound on the health and economic effects of cheap, unhealthy Corn Fed, feed-lot, mass-produced cattle that makes up 98% of the beef we consume and is a leading contributor to our countries unhealthy diet.

It is, however, not Corn's fault that it has been misused so. For whatever our current tribulations, many good people have made good livings with Corn and in the City of Sun Prarie, Wisconsin they take a weekend every year to celebrate the joys of Corn. Sweet Corn to be exact, and while I may hate Corn for its many crimes, tasting bad is not one of them.

So this morning around noon, my Bride and I locked, loaded and headed out around the beltline to Sun Prairie, one of Madison's most popular little suburbs and probably the biggest. As the years have gone by, I've watched Madison sidle slowly up to Sun Prairie like a batch of spilled pancake batter creeping across the counter top. Once the Eastside stores made the salmon-like upstream LEAP across the interstate, it was only a matter of time before Sun Prairie was assimilated like a cheesecake buffet under the baleful gaze of a fat Borg. Right now I think one single, nervous cornfield stands between the two cities. Soon they will mate like a pair of raindrops and Sun Prairie, like Fitchburg and Monona, will loose some of it's identity.

But for today, Sun Prairie was out on display, freaks, geeks, soccer moms, Nascar dads and everyone else who isn't so neatly looped up by a demographic, all with the air of the usual convivial Wisconsin charm.

I love fairs. I love the idea of fairs. I loved our county and city fairs as a kid. I lived in a small enough town where, while I didn't know everyone, I could count on running into a number of peers. Parental supervision was lax (beer tent), mischief was in rich supply and there was an understanding amongst my peers that with a little co-operation, mischief levels could be exponentially increased with very little effort. The Carney's were fair game for cheats and tricks because we all knew damn well that they were trying to trick us. Use a cork gun to knock over a pack of cigarettes that the operator will not show us or turn around huh? Of course it's weighted and of course nobody will mind if one of us nips home, grabs their BB pistol and with the virtue of a little timing and coordination, we managed to strip the nice gentlemen of several worthless stuffed animals before he cottoned on.

Beer was snuck, tickets were stolen, gates were circumvented, rooftops were accessed and any number of bases were gotten from any number of girls in cornfields, backseats and underneath bleachers.

So I still get a little thrill from fairs of any kind these days. I found myself wishing that we went at night instead of mid-day. Once the sun went down, it's so much more fun.

The centerpiece of the Corn festival is, of course, The Corn. $1.50 an ear for you Wimpy McPussypants, 6 dollars for a boat of 8 or 9 ears, unshucked, steamed. I shudder at the idea of anyone eating 8 ears of corn by themselves (I also shudder at what that would do to their digestive tract), so my Bride and I split one. They must process a few thousand people through the line and therefore have something approaching a brigade system in place to cycle people though. First you meet the nice Corn Ladies who grab freshly steamed ears off of a conveyor belt and hand them out a boat at a time to hungry corn seekers.

Afterward, you spend a few seconds testing your pain thresholds while you attempt to shuck the steaming hot corn before crying like a little girl. Then it's off to the Butter Girls...

If there is anything about the Sun Prairie Corn Festival that deserves the attention of the nation (or at least that part of the nation that is in possession of a, shall we say, trumpet and skittles), it is this. I don't know the history behind this. I don't know if this has been done in other places, but I really do have to take my hat off to the undoubtedly male genius who had the idea of using all the cute, female, high-school seniors to perform the ever so efficient and convenient act of seasoning your delicious cob of sweet corn by rubbing it around in a tray full of butter.

I could write fifty pages a day for the rest of my life, and not cover all the innuendo you could derive from just... that... picture. I leave the final word on the subject to my Bride, who, settled at our picnic table afterward, thanked me for not being "That Guy."

"What do you mean?" I asked, bewildered.

She replied, "Thank you for not going up there and saying something like, 'Hey Baby, ya wanna lube my cob?'"

The fair offers up a lot of local, currently fashionable crafty booths for your shopping pleasure, the usual retinue of carnival rides and food alongside the food offerings by local civic and fraternal groups. After stuffing ourselves on corn, we both wound up indulging in a post-corn snack, corn-dog for me (it's an addiction) and fried cheese for my Bride. We also treated ourselves to some Real Fruit Smoothies. Honestly, we didn't need the fair food to make it a fun day and I left wondering what kind of freaks go to a Corn Festival and DON'T eat corn.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Well Done Repast...

Quite often, I have found myself wishing, “Why couldn't I have been born Rich instead of Beautiful?”. Despite my stunning callipygian physique, I am often found wanting for those nice stacks of hundreds that others use to heat their houses with.

Though, honestly, I don't ever want to be “Rich”. Rich, to me, sounds frightening. From everything I've ever been able to see, it makes people crazy, and not the normal kind of crazy, a contagious crazy that affects them and is transmitted to the people close to them. Very few I have seen have been able to resist this virulent strain of silly and my hat is off to them. Me, I'd rather not take the chance.

As such, I have made it a lifelong project to seek out the best in life with little or no price tag. They say the best things in life are free... that's somewhat true. Sitting around, laughing with a group of friends after a long hard day at work is a very, very satisfying feeling. Doing so while whipping across the water in a million dollar yacht is probably more fun... or so I suspect. But it's not so much more that I feel like I'm missing out. In the strange, analytical lobe of my brain, I figure it breaks down :Me (50%) + Friends (25%) + Beer (10%) + Hard Days Work (10%) = 95% of the fun. Environment and amenities add about 5% onto that equation. Let's be honest here, even a yacht can't make up for crappy beer.

I offer up, as proof of this equation, my dinner last night. After a long, crappy weekend full of disappointments, my Bride and I got a last minute call from our friend Corrie who was in town and floated the idea of dinner.

Shouldn't go, should save money....

Bugger it, crappy weekend.

Elements Of A Good Dinner Out With Friends.

1.Everyone must be in the mood for or have the need for a Good Time.

Ulterior Motives are such ugly things. There is no networking, there is no kibitzing, there is no feuding or fuming. Open heart, open mind, loosen collar, crack knuckles, focus on nothing.

2. Good Food and an Appetite.
This is not the time for your diet. If you are going to cheat, do not cheat at 3:00am in front of the fridge where it benefits no one but you. Save your splurge for Right Now. Order by taste, order by what sounds good, what's your favorite, what you are dying to try, just don't order with calories or carbs or fat or appearance in mind. Order too much and take home leftovers, they will make you happy the next day with good memories. Also, this is not the time for fussy, fancy food. The food should be mutually accessible and non-threatening. Taking the fussy eater out for sushi is a buzz-kill. Last night we ate Russian at our favorite local eatery Arbat.

3. Liquor
I have a rant building that will explore the evils and goods of sweet, sweet alcohol. For now, let us say that I am a big believer in the social lubricating powers of a modest amount of hooch. To drink and to be a little buzzed is a pleasure. It's a pleasant, legal euphoria that one deserves from time to time as reward for hard work and BDW (Bullshit Dealt With). So long as it handled responsibly, a few cold beers are a balm to the soul. Last night we drank Baltika #2 and our mandatory shots of Vodka (it was a Russian restaurant after all).

If you follow these simple guidelines, you will be blessed with a night much like mine. Laughter, both at ourselves and others, expressions of admiration and regard, relaxation, happiness. It's sweet, it's fleeting, but it made my weekend.

There is no palace on earth, no four stared chef, no yacht big enough or venue fancy enough to improve upon three friends, sitting around a tiny Russian restaurant, drinking cheap Russian beer, eating Pelmeni and telling dick jokes.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Citius, Altius, Fortius.

It is sometimes hard for a thinking human to keep their faith. As humans, we have a built in survival-based compulsion to focus on the negative aspects of life. We lap up headlines about murders, violence and tragedy and our media happily responds with more and more because, hey, it sells papers and advertising. So often do we hear such negative information that a saturation point is quickly reached (usually about the late teens) where we start thinking that the whole world is nothing but a sea of horror and bloodshed. People sometimes wallow in this cynicism and ennui for the rest of their lives.

The greater tragedy is that they sometimes grow to like their little shells of cynicism. Hope takes effort and risks disappointment, something they fear they cannot stomach again. But in order to ignore hope, they must ignore the thousands of small victories and small blessings going on around them every day.

In a city of 400,000 people such as I live in, on any one day in 6 months their might be a murder. Though the tragedy of this cannot be summed in words, the greater tragedy is to ignore the 399,999 other people who didn't die. People who raised children, loved one another, earned some money, built some stuff, fixed things, created things, believed in things or just held their shit together for one... more... day. Do these little victories mean nothing? How short we sell our wonderful world to dismiss this collective victory as insignificant.

People are far too ready to believe that everyone is selfish, the world is doomed, and that there are no good people in the world.

But today, this week, it's a little harder to do that.

I am a round-heeled pushover for the Olympics. Whatever you may think about the origins of the symbolism, the inevitable politics that go along with any endeavor of this size, or the attitudes of some of the participants, there are so many participants and organizers who so obviously believe in the Olympic creed and Olympic ideal that it warms the heart. I sat, watching misty-eyed as the Parade of Nations, some nations with a smaller population than the seating capacity of the Olympic stadium, marched past, smiling and waving, proudly holding their flag, their symbol of national and cultural pride aloft.

In a time when the global market is a-changin', when the UN is floundering and alliances are shifting rapidly, the Olympics are going strong. More and more smaller countries are amping up for a hosting bid. Cities like Lima and Baku in Azerbaijan, Delhi (which will hopefully spur the India Olympic movement as a country of over 1,132,446,000 people only fielded a team of 57 athletes for 302 events) and Rio de Janeiro, the darkhorse candidate for the 2016 Olympics siting the fact that South America has NEVER hosted an Olympics, ever. They've got me cheering for their bid over Chicago's bid, even thought that would be Teh Awesome.

Even though I do, strongly believe that the concept of “Nations” is outdated and often dangerous while we are all, quite obviously, residents of the same, small, fragile blue marble floating through an unfriendly vaccum, it's fun to watch people's shift, split and mingle allegiances during these games. I've got friends who are cheering for Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, Spain and so on. I myself shall be cheering for the U.S. (obviously), France, China, Ghana, Great Britain, Ireland and any small country that hasn't won a medal yet. Especially Micronesia and Lichtenstein.

The Olympics might not be perfect, but it's a reflection of us. Humanity is not perfect, but we're all trying to be better. We're trying to live up to our ideals and though we may not make it 100% of the time, we keep trying. We deserve credit, we deserve hope and we deserve a little satisfaction for those little victories. Maybe if we recognize our successes, it makes it easier to keep trying. Yes this is corny, but for today, for this week, I dare ya to believe it.

Citius, Altius, Fortius.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Fat Talk

I'm fat.

No, really, it's true.

I've always been a big eater. When I was a kid, my Mom used the old Mom line "you must have a hollow leg!" a number of times and when I was a kid, this presented no problem. I spent my childhood on the back of a bicycle. As soon as I was able, I rode everywhere on my bike. I once rode from Beaver Dam to Waupun one afternoon, on a whim. Hiking, biking, swimming, climbing... anything outdoorsy.

But... as I grew older, I spent more and more time with my computer, more time exploring academic interests, less and less time with activities. After High School I began a slow, steady... inflation. Very slowly at first. I had a factory job to start with, it kept me moving and on my feet. Later, as I started to assume more office duties and finally got myself into a design job, my ass started to spread. The kiss of death came with I took a call center position. Eight hours a day of sitting on my ass. I'm not sure, but I think I've put on over 100 pounds in the last two years.

Now, I'm never going to be "thin". I've never considered myself good looking. My face is a riot of conflicting genetics that did not reach an harmonious balance, but this doesn't mean I don't like the way I look. My face is very expressive, I've got nice eyes and I can do that Mr. Spock thing with my eyebrows. It's an unfortunate trend that good-looking people tend to get a little lazy about their personality and attitude. It's not flattering. So many people are seemingly willing to put up with soooo much from them because they are easy on the eyes that they are quite often a little vapid, boorish or out and out abrasive. Me, I've got no choice but to charm people with my personality. I've worked very hard at being well spoken and clever, so I think that more than makes up for my awkward appearance. I like to think that, like a good Gourmet, I'll always be a little thick around the middle, a little jolly tummy. I think it makes me less threatening, people relax a little more, which speeds me on my way to getting to know people.

However, I have now proceeded beyond "A little thick", beyond "A Lot Thick" and straight into "Too Thick". I know this for many reasons.

I know this because it's becoming harder to find cool clothes. No more funny t-shirts for me, those bad boys stopped at 3x (if I was lucky).

I know this because I have developed wicked high blood pressure. Yes I'm controlling it with medication but I never, ever wanted to become one of those people that needs pills on a daily basis. What am I going to do if the Zombies invade? They aren't about to let me run to the Pharmacy!

I know this because I'm starting to feel... handicapped. I can't walk the distances that I used to. My mobility is really starting to suffer. I've never considered that there was any physical activity that I couldn't do and now I'm being confronted by the fact that some things have quietly slipped out of my reach while I was at the buffet.

I know this because, over the last couple years, I've started to get... The Fat Talk.

It comes at odd moments, but usually when I haven't seen people for extended periods. I suspect they are shocked and dismayed by how much I've ballooned up and feel the need to say something. I got it from our in-laws. I've got it from a few old friends... and I'm always torn about how to feel and/or respond to them.

I know it's based on concern and it's flattering, gratifying, heart-warming and sweet. But what inevitably goes along with The Fat Talk is The Diet Advice... which I don't feel as charitable about.

What I should eat, what I shouldn't eat. How to eat low fat, how to eat low carb. You should try Atkins, you should try South Beach, you should cut out soda, you should cut out meat, you should cut out bread, eat more veggies, yogurt, drink more water... blah blah blah. The basic assumption here seems to be that I don't know how to loose weight, otherwise I would have already done so.

How in the world can I explain to people that I own over 100 cook books, many of them diet books? How can I explain that I watch cooking shows compulsively, that I read food magazines, read Foodie websites and that I KNOW all the facts about food? How to tell them that I know all the tricks to eating healthy? Do they understand that I can make an awesome low fat cream sauce with a quarter of the fat, and all of it unsaturated, that is so good it'll make you want to slap your Mama?

How can I explain that for me, food has always been entertainment? That an afternoon sitting on the couch, watching TV, is boring but a bowl of buttery popcorn makes it a treat?

How can I explain that my Mom sucks at comforting people? She's not particularly expressive and tends to get nervous, stumble over her words and say the wrong thing... so she switched from talking to cooking when comfort was needed. That my Mom's fried egg sandwich with cheese is my Death Row dish... that nothing else means love and comfort to me like it does? That food, comfort and home are synonymous with safety and security in the deep core of my brain?

How can I explain the number of times that I've started a new diet, a new exercise regime, a new plan, a new day... only to fail, again and again till you get sick of yourself, you loose confidence, you realize how little self control you actually have and you start to dislike yourself for it?

I know I'm not healthy. I know that what I have been doing to my body is tantamount to a slow and lazy form of suicide. Like an alcoholic, I'm killing myself by inches, but this is something so wired into my brain, so fundamental to my nature that it's like teaching a scorpion not to sting.

Part of the battle over the last year has been realizing and defining what my relationship with food is. Realizing that in order to get this under control I need to change the fundamental approach and start as far down twords the foundation as it is possible to go. It's not easy. Doing this without blaming yourself, without adding to the self-loathing that is threatening to creep in is hard. I can't explain, dear reader, the battle that is being waged in my head, you wouldn't understand.

I feel like I should wrap this little post up with a ray of hope. Some indication that this sad tale might have a happy ending or that this situation is on the mend... but that feels wrong. You cannot speak of the end of a battle when it has just begun, it's presumptuous. It would demand powers of foresight neither I, nor anyone else has. Only this comfort can I give, that the battle is joined and no surrender with be sought.

Tally Ho.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pillow Fight!

Since I've already sullied myself by trafficking in viral videos, here's some more...

This one has the advantage of my favorite Charles Trenet song "Boum!"... what can I say, I'm feeling very French today.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Cambot, give me rocket number 9...

I don't know if you noticed, Gentle Reader, but some of the earlier pictures I posted on this blog... sucked. Sucked like hull breach at Warp 9.

You see, somewhere along the way, a few months ago, I started thinking to myself that it would be nice to have a digital camera. Beenie has a digital camera, and I have borrowed it on occasion, it's nice. By happenstance and serendipity, my sweet Mom-in-law got herself a digital camera from one of her many sale shopping forays. It was an SVP DC-8690. Never heard of them? Neither have I.

Due to the complete lack of included manual and her less than complete knowledge of modern electronics equipment, she couldn't figure out how to make it work. So Beenie chimed in that if Mom didn't want it, she'd take it. So, Mom brought it with during her last visit and Beenie made a valiant stab at getting it to work... which she failed at horribly.

So the sucker got passed to me. Hey! 8mp camera? Hells yeah I'll take that off your hands.

I'm a gadget kinda guy, not even counting where I work and what I do for a living, so it took me about 5 minutes to figure out how to make it work. 5 minutes to figure out the features, the settings, the flash, where to put the memory card, how to set the timer... I even figured out how to turn it into a PC camera.

I spent the next month trying to figure out how the flippin' hell to get it to take a decent picture. Dark and blurry baby, that's just how we roll. Every damn picture I took looked like I was in a Noir piece and oscillating about 65rpm.

This lasted right up to my recent trip to Picnic Point to see the Morris Dancers. You may notice that the pictures I took there do not suck. This is because, after trying desperately to take ONE decent picture during the first dance, dearest Lisa (who eats paste) handed me her shiny Canon Powershot camera to use instead.

I imagine that this is how you would feel if you had just spent the last 12 hours rubbing sticks together and someone hands you a Zippo.

It was all too much to bear. I couldn't go back to that crappy camera afterwards. I lusted after it, I dreamed about it, I fantasized about taking frame after frame of decent quality pictures. So finally, with a little budget dancing, I bought one. After dealing with a little muck up on Amazon's part, I bid you greet my new little Blogging helper whom I shall call Cambot.

This is all just in time for me to correct the FAILure of my previous post. Fisherman's stew it was again tonight, so let us do it again, this time with pictures...

First, we fry up our fish...

Golden brown and delicious. Then we make a mass supply of crouton out of some nice Turano bread...

We mix, we season, we give it a good spin with the boat motor and finally...

... Voilà! I have food porn!

Hmmm... Man, plus Blog, plus Elph, plus web hosting... this is going to get very... graphic.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Food Porn: FAIL

Ghenne over at The Cutting Edge of Ordinary always has the best food porn. It makes me feel like a pathetic foodie cause I haven't been cooking as much as I should be lately.

But tonight was different. I get my inspirations from a lot of different places and tonight I was trying to reproduce something I saw on an episode of Cook's Tour, a fisherman's soup that involved purée'd fish, cream, a shot of Pernod and a variety of toppings like fresh garlic croutons and gruyere cheese.

Our local seafood shop, as such a shop is quite firmly positioned to do, makes it's own seafood stock out of shrimp shells and fish bones. At 2 dollars a pint, it's a very nice local foodie resource. Now if only other local meat suppliers would do as much (hint, hint Jacobson Brothers). So I picked up a few pints of stock with some potatoes, albacore tuna, chives and garlic at Willy Street.

It's actually a pretty easy soup to put together. I grilled the fish, warmed the stock, made my croutons with some slices of dense crusty bread brushed with butter, olive oil and crushed garlic, seasoned my stock with salt and white pepper (for the look), added three small diced potatoes and my chunks of fish (when they had finished grilling up GB&D), then I took the boat motor to the lot of it. Afterwards, I added a small shot of half and half. What you are left with is a very nice, thick, slightly gritty soup (the fish never quite purées all the way). I got stuck pondering the seasoning at the end. Salt and pepper added, it still needed that mysterious... something.

I would normally have reached for my trusty can of Old Bay at this point but for two things stopped me. 1. That's not what the original recipe called for and 2. Beenie doesn't like Old Bay. I started eying up that shot of Pernod.

Pernod is a anise tasting pastis that is consumed on hot days, sitting outside at a cafe, mixed with ice water. Think of it like a liquorice iced tea with alcohol. I suspect it wound up in dishes like fisherman's stew because of it's pervasive presence at just about every restaurant and cafe in France. Sooner or later, some Chef (probably plastered on that very product) threw some in his soup for the hell of it and liked the result.

Riding the indecision pony, I finally decided to give it a shot and made up a test batch in a coffee cup. I only added a little dribble, swirled it around the cup a few times and poured it out before adding a ladle full of soup. The Penod smell was so overpowering that I couldn't taste the soup through the smell for the first two bites. Finally my nose settled down and I managed to concentrate. It's different. Anise is peppery and kind of exotic tasting. It made an interesting undernote to the soup and seemed to complete the dish in a somewhat obtuse way. I wound up adding a cap full to the final pot, in retrospect, I probably could have thrown in a whole ounce.

The final product looked so good. Big bowl of creamy soup with a few toasted croutons floating on top with some shredded gruyere cheese and some snipped chives to garnish. I served it with a big pile of croutons and extra cheese to add as you went along. It was BEAUTIFUL.

I remembered about halfway through my bowl that I wanted to take a picture.


Soooo... you'll have to trust me that it was mighty. Beenie is half passed out on the love seat after finishing her bowl. This one definitely goes on the "do it again" list.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

It is now, officially, Spring.

Fair reader, let it be know that it is officially Spring. The Morris has been danced.

It is almost impossible to explain to someone why I woke up at 3:30am this morning, dressed silently and slipped out of the house in the pre-dawn dark to drive out to Picnic Point with my old friend Lisa (who eats paste), where we hiked for 20 minutes through the twilight just to watch a "silly" folk dance. Trust me, I've tried. I took almost devilish delight in making my strange explanations to friends and co-workers just so I could see the odd, dumbfounded look on their faces. "You're gonna do what? Why? What kind of dancing?"

In case you are wondering, and I know you are, Morris Dancing is a folk dance that was old when Shakespeare was still writing. It involves a "side" of six dancers whose dances are performed with oak sticks that they beat together in rhythm or long white handkerchiefs that they wave about as they go. The best part, however, are the bells they wear strapped below their knees which jingle in time with their steps. It's rather comforting to know that when you attend these events, you will never have to worry about a Morris Dancer sneaking up on you. Traditionally, the most important dance of the year is done at sunrise on May 1st, the old first day of Spring. If the Morris is not danced and if nobody is there to watch it, Spring will not come. This is very true.

I am a reasonable man and an empiricist. I believe in truth, fact and evidence, but I also believe that if the Morris is not danced, and someone is not there to watch it, the seasons will not change. I believe this because their has to be an exception to the rule. I believe this because everyone should believe in something that isn't true, if for no other reason than as an exercise. I believe this because "A little madness in the spring is wholesome even for the King." I believe this because cynical bastards are inevitably drawn to whimsy and absurdity to ease their soul.

I'm not a particularly big fan of folk dancing. I'm a big fan of folk music, but not dancing. I am, however a big fan of Terry Pratchett, whom I consider something of a inspiration and teacher. I am particularly a big fan of his books Reaper Man and Wintersmith, in which Morris dancing feature quite prominently. I have also been know to have custom with some of the more benevolent Old Gods when it suited my purpose and I do believe that respect should be paid. While I am nominally a philosophical Taoist, I think that all agrarian religions should stick together somewhat and I do consider myself a "pagan" under the blanket term. Besides, I love a good party and I've been wanting to drag my ass to a May 1st morning Morris dance since I first found out about Oakapple Morris five years ago. Now that I live in Madison, I figured I really have no excuses.

After a few wrong turns and a quick, lakeside cartographic consult, we found the parking lot and spotted Morris Dancers in their spring plumage heading up a darkened path. We grabbed our flashlights and with my trusty walking stick, we headed up the path onto Picnic Point.

After about 20 minutes of hiking and a few breathless moments we arrived at the end of the point to find folks already gathering and a fire already burning in the ring. It's right about there that I started wishing I'd brought some bakery items to share.

We were greeted warmly by Oakapple's accordion player and her ever-so-lovable puppy Angel. We spent a few minutes talking to everyone as we waited for the sun to rise. Somewhere in there, Lisa (who eats paste) got talked into keeping a leash on Angel. Hardly a horrible task for such a sweet puppy.

There is something really rather gratifying about being up that early in the morning. I've always been a sunrise person (though more from working on third shift than anything) and you could not ask for a more beautiful setting than a tiny spit of land, out in the middle of a beautiful lake, campfire burning, sun rising, a beautiful panorama of the capitol buildings in the background.

Finally, at the appropriate time, the dancing began.

There is something so wonderfully absurd about Morris dancing. What can you say about a dance that incorporates such characters as the "Fool" or "Betty", which is a big hairy guy wearing a lovely pink dress...

.. who danced his way back...

...and forth through the dancers without getting smacked by a big oak stick,

... and a "Hobby", which is usually a horse but, given that this is Wisconsin, around here, it's a cow.

I have always suspected that it's so much more fun to DO than to watch. But it's the absurdity of the whole affair that drew everyone together. "Here we stand, in the cold, at 5:30 in the morning, watching a bunch of people with bells on, waving handkerchiefs in the air." It's at that point that you realize that there is NO WAY for you to look cool doing this, so you stop trying, relax and enjoy yourself all the more for it. The funny part was watching the morning joggers running up the path, into the clearing, looking around with a puzzled expression and running right back out again.

After the side had completed their performance and received their meet of applause, we settled in for the traditional May 1st activity of gilding the Maypole (with reminders by me of what a Maypole supposedly represents, I just can't help myself, I'm 12.)...

... with musical accompaniment.

Afterwards we gathered around the fire for some traditional semi-bawdy folk songs and the burning of the "winter witch" as our symbolic last goodbyes to Winter. Then we headed out, having earned, as it were, our breakfast.

On the way home, denied my breakfast companion by the cruel march of time and the demands of corporate America, I stopped off for a breakfast bun and a bottle of juice before returning home and seeking my bed. As I walked across the parking lot, I couldn't help but be drawn to the sound of birds chirping. It seemed the sun shined a little brighter, the air was a little sweeter and the breeze a little warmer. Inside, I had to stand behind some poor, hectic executroid who was stressing about the dietary content of his decaf macchiato. I had this terrible urge to drag him outside, point at the sky and remind him... It's SPRING. Relax. Take the day off. Go fishing, go hiking, go sit in the grass with a six-pack and get drunk.

It's Spring, after a long winter, and today the world is full of potential.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Can't stop the signal...

Okay, that's enough of the foodie doom-and-gloom prophecies. Let us return to lighter fare.

Speaking of fare. May I present to you with my newest culinary creation.

Creamy Satay Ramen with Tea Marinated Hardboiled Eggs

  • 1 package Ramen Noodles
  • 2 Tbls Peanut Butter
  • 2 Tbls Evaporated Milk
  • 1 Can of French Cut Green Beans
  • 2 Tea Bags
  • 1 Egg
  • Salt
  • Hot Sauce
Bring approximately 3 cups of water to boil in small saucepan. Add teabags and several healthy pinches of kosher salt. Leave teabags steep for 2 minutes and remove. Gently place hard boiled egg into boiling tea and leave for 3 minutes. After three minutes, remove from heat, place egg on counter and allow to cool. Reserve boiling liquid in screw top container. Once egg has cooled, peel and return to cooled tea. Marinate egg in tea for 8 hours.

When ready, bring two cups of water to boil. Add 1 pack Ramen noodles. Boil until soft and add included flavor packet. Cook for one more minute and remove from heat. Add 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and stir until melted. Add 2 tablespoons of condensed milk. Open can of green beans and drain. Pat dry with paper towel and place on small pan in toaster oven for 5 minutes or until lightly roasted. Add beans to noodles and stir to combine. Split tea marinated hard boiled egg and place on top. Add hot sauce... liberally.

Take picture. Eat while playing Stronghold: Crusader.

How does it taste you ask? Not bad actually. Apart from the lack of coco-nutty aspect, it tasted pretty much like satay sauce. The eggs didn't absorb as much flavor as I'd have hoped but the were salty and tangy and not bad.

Why you ask? Because while I did not have any weird food cravings this week, I've been dying to COOK SOMETHING. I'm a foodie, gawds damn it, and puttering around in the kitchen is one of my chief pleasures. Can't stop the signal Mal, can't stop the signal.

I expect to receive my Michelin star any day now.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Many hands make light work...

One of the things that I have always wholly believed is that with the right tools and preparation, one could feed oneself very, very cheaply with the offset of some effort and planning.

Let us take our two dollar budgie here as an example. 10 dollars a week. Okay, maybe for the first week I live on Ramen and hot dogs and manage to squirrel away two dollars. Next week, as annoying as it is, I do the same. Eventually I have the $4/$4.50 necessary to buy a small fryer chicken. I throw that bad boy in the stock pot and make a basic chicken stock. I meet out the meat from the bird in, as Dana puts it, chicken McNugget sized portions, just enough to add a few shots to my Ramen. This might last me a week, saves me from having to buy eggs to put in my Ramen so I spend some money on in-season fruit, past it's prime, at the Farmer's market. I take it home, oven dry it and make it last for a few weeks.

Let's extrapolate further. Let's assume that I actually have some start-up capitol to set up housekeeping. I buy pickling jars and a pickling crock. I buy canning equipment and a pressure cooker for storing long term. I set up one of AB's drying rigs. I have enough land for a large kitchen garden and the skills necessary to take my once-a-year surplus of fresh veggies and turn it into canned goodness I can eat off all year.

You can go further than this. Maybe I live out in the country and I have enough room for a small chicken coop. Maybe I've got a .22 and a keen enough eye to bag a rabbit on occasion. Maybe I've got enough firepower to go deer-hunting and part of my initial purchases included a chest freezer. I've got meat for a long, long time if I bag a deer or two every year. Maybe I've got enough land to raise goats, or sheep, or cows, or corn. Maybe I've got a sustenance farm and other than the occasional outlay for exotics (assuming I can't trade for them), I spend Sweet Fanny Adams on food.

In the opposite direction, I've been doing my eating this week with the understanding at the outset that I can boil my water, toast my bread and store my food without risk of spoilage. How would my diet have changed if I didn't have a fridge?

I don't think I'd be eating hot dogs as they'd probably be a little funky by now. My eggs would no doubt be a little suspect as well before the end of the week. Maybe if, like many less developed countries, I had a market I could go to where the food was fresh, sold out daily and able to be purchased in small quantities. I.E. Can I have one egg and two crap hot dogs to go please?

In this country though, we don't have that. You must have a fridge, don't you? Even a little one? My local big box has got a tiny 1.7 cubic fridge for $59.00.

Ever been on vacation and walked though a quaint food market where they have their food in stacks. Know why they are like that? Because either they have no refrigeration or they do and none of their clients do. We forget what a financial boon having a refrigerator is. Compared to a lot of places, everything in America comes in bulk and if you've ever taken a finance class, you know, it's always cheaper to buy in bulk.

But let's go further than that. I did my shopping this week with the understanding that I'd have a stove to cook on. Not only a stove, but a fancy toaster oven to toast my bread when plain PB&J got dull.

How would my diet have changed when I had no place to cook? No ramen, no eggs (unless I wanted to pull a Rocky Balboa and drink em' raw... blech). I could still have my PB&J, unless I had no fridge then that jam might not last to long. I'd probably be living out of a can, eating pork and beans with a spoon. Even then I'm counting on the fact that while I did not have a stove to release the caloric content of my food, the canning company did.

Of course, I could always light a fire but it'd have to be outside, no fireplace. It's also illegal to light a fire outside just about everywhere in Madison, so I'd be pretty screwed. I can see it now, huddled over a campfire, pot in hand, Ramen in the other, busted like Benjamin Bunny. Only man every arrested for Ramen heating.

This, of course, leads me to wonder how homeless people eat. I've been in Taco Bell on State Street when one of the Family came in with cup full of change to cash out for the evening. He walked out with a pretty decent haul, couple bean burritos, a few tacos and a big cold soda that he made his first order of business and walked out happily slurping on. Probably cost him two or three dollars.

In our country, we've got mass marketing, mass production and mass distribution to keep the price low. How is Ramen so cheap? Because they make millions of packs every day in totally automated plants and are tied into the global food distribution market. Every grocery store, even the ethnic groceries, carries Ramen. It's a staple. It has to be there. How is McMeat so cheap? Says it on the sign when you drive in, over one Trillion sold.

What you spend on food is highly dependent on where you come from and what resources you have available to you. In America, we've got a lot of resources and for many, many reasons, both good and bad, we should be aware of our surroundings. What lies beneath us, in support and what lies before us... in wait.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Day 1 down the hatch...{burp}

This is not hard. Nor is it by any means starvation rations. It is, however, boring.

I started out the day with a big bowl of oatmeal. Big, big I tells ya. 1 cup of dry weight oatmeal, a shot of evaporated milk mixed in with the water and I got about 3 cups of oatmeal in return.

It was bland, it was nasty and the texture sucked. I'm so used to my lovely Overnight Oatmeal that these bland flakes were a pretty nasty shock. Ah well, I threw some sugar and some of my strawberry jam in the bowl and I managed to choke down about half the bowl.

Before leaving for work, I scarfed down both my hot dogs and buns, mostly because I was running late and it didn't require much cooking. Unfortunately, I forgot to add some kind of mustard to my shopping list and was stuck eating plain hot dogs... blech.

I ate my apple at work and when I got home I didn't even try to eat TWO packs of Ramen. One pack, egg and flavor pack added and I'm happily full.

This is too much food. It's bland but it's not tasteless. My oatmeal isn't as good as I'm used to but it's still oatmeal, just more than I'm used to eating. I'm used to eating my favorite Hebrew National dogs. My .99 cent dogs still tasted like hot dogs, just not as much. Ramen is still Ramen and it's not a punishment to have to eat a bowl of deep fried noodles with an egg mixed in.

It makes me wonder about how much we pay for our food. I know there is probably a huge difference in overall quality between my .99 cent loaf of bread and the whole grain white I'm used to buying. You can feel it when you pick up the loaf. It's mostly air. But how many other items that we buy are artificially increased in price? We live in a free market society and while I'd like to think that food companies charge what the food it worth, I know better. Companies charge what the market will bear and they do plenty of research to find out what that number is.

A lot of people I know are full bore into the Organic movement. They think that eating foods with an Organic label on them is going to keep them healthy and live longer. They will happily shell out 25-40% more for an item that is "Organic".

Me, I think the trick is to keep your ingredient list down. My bread should contain flour, yeast maybe eggs, some water and salt. Nothing else if possible please. That is my idea of healthy.

My Organic adherent friends would never be caught dead in places like Aldi. They'd mumble something about hormones, preservatives and chemicals. But things like, flour, eggs, sugar? Is it really so different across town at Woodman's? Is organic flour, eggs and sugar really that much better for you, is it worth that much more?

We live with a lot of superstitions about food and, like any fanciful flight away from reason, it makes me nervous. We can see a time now when our cornucopia may finally start to run dry. What would people do in this country? Would we cling blindly to our fears or finally, after many many years, take a more practical look at what we eat and where it comes from.

To be honest, as bland as my food is, it think Dana's suffering a lot more than I am. Plain white rice? Good lawrd. Drive on up girl, I'll split my Ramen with ya.