Monthly Archives: November 2008

Bobotie, Coming Soon to a State Near You

Given that I’m a somewhat recent transplant to MSP, I’m still amused by the peculiarities indigenous to the state of Minnesota. As I see it, the main differences between Wisconsin (my home state) and Minnesota have to do with handguns and booze. Classy, right? When I first saw the signs in MSP that read HANDGUNS BANNED ON THESE PREMISES, I was more than a little freaked out. I lived in both Chicago and a not-so-lovely corner of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant, and no one talked about handguns there!

We’re forthright about our handguns, but we’re more than a little weird about our booze, with three-two beer (which even my lifelong MSP friends don’t understand entirely), grocery stores that can’t sell liquor, and a ban on liquor sales on the most spirited day of the week. I’m from working-class Milwaukee, where there is a bar on every residential street, we take brewery tours just to guzzle down free beer afterward, and the in-store liquor selection at Pick ‘n Save is just as vast as the produce section.

Of course, as we all know, once you cross the border from Wisco into Minneso-ota, another peculiar thing happens. Casserole turns into hotdish. I’m no stranger to casserole. The dish I remember most from my mom’s homey collection of recipes is something called Super Supper: a bubbling, baked collection of whipped potatoes with sour cream, beef seasoned with pre-packaged BBQ spices, corn, and pre-shredded cheddar cheese. This is straightforward if not also rib-sticking delicious, even though half the time she didn’t even put the corn in because my brother wouldn’t eat it. It shows you just how exotic we were. photo(2)

Last weekend, when I made bobotie for Lisa’s South African-themed dinner party, I couldn’t help but be charmed by all the unique ingredients that go into this meal. This is a traditional South African recipe with 1,001 permutations that reveals just how much our food says about who we are. Compare South African traditions (bright, spicy, exotic) and Midwestern traditions (creamy, packaged, and hold those spices and the wild fruits!). Bobotie is your Midwestern grandmother’s hotdish hallucination.

I followed this recipe I found at Gastronomy Domine, which I highly recommend. It contains the following.

Beef and white bread. (I used half beef, half veal for variety.)

Milk and eggs.

Lemon juice, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, bay leaves, curry, AND garam masala.

Dried apricots, sultanas, and chutney. (I substituted pineapple for chutney, which works nicely.)

This is all pressed into a baking dish and topped with an egg/milk combination that forms a savory tent of custard on the top when baked. Whew!

bobotie and yellow riceTo accompany it, I made yellow rice a la Emeril, which I have made another two times this week. I stock the leftover rice and love using it to make my own renditions of fried rice with whatever fresh stuff I have on hand.

To drink, we had a few bottles of Pinotage, which Stefanie and I mostly enjoyed but couldn’t pinpoint what we didn’t love about it. DSC01203

For dessert, Lisa made soetkoekies, which are traditional South African sweet cookies. Given her wild crush on desserts, she didn’t love the subtle flavors. Lucky for me, because I did, and she sent me home with plenty of cookies, which I ate not-so-judiciously with coffee the next day.

In fact, I write this with a stiff cup of coffee and a soetkoekie this morning, a little taste of the exotic here in the homey Midwest.

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Girl Meets Cafe. Boy Meets Girl.

If I were in pursuit of a cafe that resonates with me on many levels, it might go like this.

SWF, 33, seeks cafe that works hard by day and dresses up well at night. Friends consider me a discriminating cafe-goer, so I hope you are an open-minded, comfortable place to spend hours on end, have free Wi-Fi and ample electrical outlets, and don’t look at me funny when I come to the counter three times in one afternoon.

I get along best with cafes that have a reverence for dark coffee, substantial deserts, and vegetarian-friendly meals for those cases in which I overcaffeinate myself and need to eat something before I pass out. I consider myself aesthetically driven, so please offer a civilized respite from my busy day. Major bonus points if you have an appreciation for wine and art.

gigisfront If Gigi’s Cafe in south Minneapolis were to reply to my ad, I would fall in love with it on almost all accounts. Except for one. Gigi’s does not have free Wi-Fi. It’s such a bummer, I know, but as we single gals know, you can’t hold out for absolutely everything in your soulmate. Major two-way compatibility is key, and beyond that you need to look into your heart and accept the other for who they are. In this case, Gigi’s is a wonderful cafe that’s versatile enough to sling your morning coffee, support your mid-day freelance work, or offer a flirtatious backdrop for a romantic date. And there ain’t a thing wrong with that.

I showed up at Gigi’s at 7:30 earlier this week to meet RP, a fellow with whom I was having a first date. I got there a minute early and placed my cold-weather accoutrements on a chair to get organized. When I looked up, he was coming in the front door. We recognized each other and shared one of those implicit flashes of relief that quietly says you are interested in this person you just discovered before you.

He got a chickpea spinach salad and a chocolate brownie, I got a peach three-berry cobbler, and we both ordered a glass of Malbec from the satisfying wine list. I chatted up the girl behind the counter who let me know that Gigi’s is the name of the owner’s grandmother. The owner also runs her own coffee distribution company that keeps a number of local businesses well caffeinated. RP then joined in and said he knows the woman who manages the kitchen. I was intrigued. He paid for our food and drink, which we lined up on our arms like good servers and went to find a seat.

It turns out that RP used to work as a bartender and server, so he had plenty to say about food and local restaurants. He is also studying to be an urban planner, so we spoke at length about the Twin Cities, the built environment, and things like the flâneur (“a gentleman stroller of city streets”) and psychogeography. This common ground offered many twists and turns in a long conversation full of digressions and regressions, like a long walk through the winding back streets of St. Paul and up the hill again.

Before we knew it, the house lights came on, the chairs were turned onto the tabletops, and we had to gather our things. I said that it didn’t feel like a Tuesday night. He said, “No, it feels like a Saturday.” What a surprise to find a cafe and conversation good enough to make even a humble weeknight feel like weekend. On the street outside the cafe, I somehow came to shake his hand,  holding it in both of my hands like I was lightly patting a snowball.

Gigi's Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Amazing, Uncategorizable Barbette

DSC01121Can you feel that, my friends? That cold wind that gets under your skin and makes you dance around like an idiot in the streets? When I left my place this morning, I was pelted by hard rain that could almost be described as snow. I suppose this icky precip is what Mary Lucia calls “frickle” (freezing drizzle, right?), and what weather.com refers to as a “wintry mix,” which sounds more like a nice, creamy winter cocktail than this face-stinging frickle nonsense.

In all fairness, I don’t mind winter. I know it’s controversial, but I’d go so far as to say I like it. Snow and wind are the great democratizers of the Midwest, pitting man against nature and proving time and again that we’re all in this together, kind of like street parking or gynecological exams. I also adore the style of the season, which I refer to as Minnesota Chic: everyone goofed out in scarves and hats that make us look like cast members from the Muppets. At the co-op today, I saw an older man with a front-tied scarf around his neck wearing a wool alpaca hat with colorful flowers on it. He was laden with groceries and dodging the frickle on the way back to his car. This is the kind of stuff I like. Take that, delusions! Nice try, unpreparedness! It’s hard to be foolish or pretentious when you’re from Minnesota.

Anyway. My radiators are finally humming, my car is cracking, and last night, Lake Calhoun looked like an exquisite portrait of itself, as you can see in this picture I took. I also had a guest in town. My author-friend Ronelle came for a visit from Portland. This is a woman with her wits about her. She arrived with hiking boots, wool coat, hat, and scarf. Together, we looked like poster girls for Minnesota Chic. We wandered around Lake Calhoun until our toes got cold then went to Barbette for dinner. DSC01123

I have to center myself and sigh deeply before I can tell you about Barbette. I feel slightly transformed every time I walk in this place. Imagine being welcomed by a round gold table, deep red banquettes, jewel tone accessories, a decadent reclining nude (on the wall, of course), vintage circus posters, and colorful hanging lights that look like bubblegum on a stick. I love my urbane corner of St. Paul, but this atmosphere makes me want to pack up and move. Romance such as this is best experienced as an easy pied-à-terre on your favorite corner, a joyful whim you can come to love.

We ordered frites to start, because who should do without them? This is the half order, which our server advised would be more than enough. She was right. There wasn’t enough mayo, but that’s OK. And I would have loved a bit of cracked pepper, but that’s OK, too.

DSC01125Ronelle ordered grilled Fischer pork loin with pear currant compote, Wisconsin wild rice, pine nuts, braised greens, and raisins. 

I ordered one of the specials. Braised Minnesota beef daube Provençal with organic root vegetables, nicely served with two pieces of white bread for mopping up and eating every last drop of the sauce.

Barbette’s classic French cooking is so faithful and sure of itself that it allows the experience of living, dining, and DSC01126discussing to be the real star of the show. When great food, gracious service, and an imaginative setting come together this seamlessly, you have found a restaurant that can take you somewhere. Mid-evening, I looked around and noticed that the place had reached a pitched equilibrium, with every seat taken and no one waiting to get in. The buzz was high and the crowd consisted of packs of suits, ladies of six, and one particular table of two sitting next to us – a man and a woman so drawn to each other they just had to be physically enmeshed. At Barbette, that’s perfectly all right. Barbette makes me want to date intensely, fall in love, or broker a really big deal. The setting transports you, and the food makes you remember who you are. Maybe this is why the place is named after a circus act, something that is kind of exotic, but kind of dorky – and as I see it, thoroughly Minnesota Chic.

Barbette on Urbanspoon

One Wicked Sigh of Relief

How about that? I got so wrapped up in all the amazing victories of the past week that I didn’t slow down to write3013068061_4aff70d364_b about any of them, or even follow-up on my earlier post. Pardon my lateness, and allow me to indulge.

Last night, Aaron and his girlfriend Colleen invited Michael, Stefanie, Angela, and me over for a multicourse dinner of small eats, which of course turned out to be a wonderful parade of food. We hung out around the island as Aaron and Colleen dished out plate after plate, proving themselves to be the perfect prepping and cooking pair. We had a cheese plate with apples. Lavash with goat cheese, broiled figs, and honey (perhaps my favorite item on the menu). Corn chips with cheesy tofu, broiled corn, avocado, olives, and tomato. A perfect salad with Deborah Madison’s creamy shallot dressing. (The salad was made of field greens with celery, feta, hard boiled egg slices, sunflower seeds, tomatoes, and maybe something else, too. We loved it.) Seared tuna with saffron aioli. Beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce. Soba noodles with peanut sauce and cabbage. Blooming jasmine tea. And ice cream with homemade biscotti.

Can you imagine what a mess this would make in the hands of a lesser chef? Aaron, though, is a bit of a wizard in the kitchen, a fan of mise en place cooking, and also a conservationist through and through. In his charming fashion, his tidy ecological footprint carries over to everything he does. After serving this wild spread of food, his kitchen was perfectly clean, as shown in this picture of us, taken immediately after our meal.

DSC01034Another fun food night happened at my place with eight of us on election night. With the stakes so high, we were all on edge and unprepared to face the possibility of a McCain win. But many things did bode well. Stefanie showed up with her fabulous Obama cake, which sent out good vibes into the world as she was baking. Vanessa reported that astrologically, Obama’s victory was written profusely all over the stars. And although Tamas, Elysia’s Hungarian husband who has lived in the States for the three years, couldn’t even vote, he showed up sporting the proudest array of pro-Obama gear. Obviously, we are all thinking positively, so we tried to chill out, enjoy dinner, and follow the early lead-up to the final results.

salad

I made a spinach salad with goat cheese feta, pumpkin seeds roasted in chili powder, and dried cherries. This is a great combination that went over well, and I’m sure to make again.

pasta

For the main course, I made had penne pasta with pumpkin, cream, parmesan, and sage, which was the first time I made a Rachel Ray recipe. So far, so good. I can’t complain about the girl’s food.

After dinner, we piled like clowns into one car and headed to the Crowne Plaza for the official DFL Victory Party, which turned out to be a historic and seriously inspirational event, with 1,000s of people of every stripe socializing in and out of hotel rooms and a massive central room with numerous stages, food and drink, big screen TVs, and barely any room to move.

One minute, we were ticking off states one by one, and the next minute, the screen flashed out an Obama victory . . . and elation took over the crowd. We cheered and rejoiced. We hugged strangers and started to cry. We drank out of some guy’s champagne bottle, and then we cried some more. We took a 101 pictures, and stood enthralled by our first black president’s victory speech. We got a little silly, but hey. We were erupting with pride, relief, anticipation, and hope. It’s November 2008, and Barack Obama is our new president.

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