Monday, July 28, 2008

Rare Bird

It's been a wild couple of weeks over here at ETMA HQ. There have been many trips to the range and back. This year we've watched my dear grandma Gidgee's health deteriorate. It was time. She was 103 years old and I hope to poop out long before then. She had an amazing life and it was spent mostly surrounded by loving family, tons of friends and the occasional vodka gimlet.
It was a long goodbye. I can't tell you how many times I protested, "But MO--oooommm!"
Only to be answered with, "You don't know how much longer we're going to have your grandmother!" She's only been saying this since 1978.
This weekend I went up to her home to gather with my extended family and toast a remarkable woman. Paging through her photo albums, I saw all of these pictures of raging parties. There was the Halloween where grandpa Dunk had dressed up as a Native American woman and refused to get up off the floor or speak to anyone all night long. (Not entirely PC, but what do you expect for the 50's?) There was Nicey, tanned within an inch of her life in California, handing her delighted husband Tink a cocktail. Paul Brown's head thrown back laughing. My great Auntie Joy, Anne and Bob Michaelson dressed head to toe in a garish lime polyester to celebrate St. Patrick's day 1972 in Borrego Springs. They were all people I was too young to know. All these parties, these fabulous times roared through by a crowd the likes of which this world will never see again.

She was the last of that generation, the final card played. There will never be another like that one. They knew life without cars, television - heck, electricity, but they also knew how to have a hell of a time.
Looking around her home, it was hard not to want to cram every knick knack or cracked plate into my suitcase. I just wanted to make it last. I wanted to save our times - and all of her great times, but that's the thing about a party. It always has to end.
Instead I ate and drank way too much, laughed my head off and cried. The entire family came home for Gidge. Even my Duluth family and close friends made the drive over to the Iron Range to pay their respects and give us all some much needed hugs. We laughed at Gidgee's funny little sayings, crazy as a coot, colder than a billy goat, dark as a pocket - I don't understand where any of these came from. The one phrase of hers that I used the most, was that she was a rare bird.
Exhausted from the arrangements, stuffed from the fabulous food from Paul's Italian food in Eveleth - who knew that Iron Rangers could be so gourmet? (Salty, heavenly spiced Porketta and a whole platter of prosciutto, mortadella and aged cheese.) The potica from the Virginia Co-op was so good, we had to make an extra trip back to town. And it only seemed like minutes had passed before it was time for us to go.

Two of the memories that people shared with us were how Gidge would often feed people tasty lunches of cold steak, crackers and sweet onions dusted with Lawry's seasoning salt. Of course we had this for lunch on our first day of making funeral arrangements. I'd never stopped to consider that this wasn't a normal staple for most people. The other thing, so fondly remembered were banacks.

Banacks are a the love child of a biscuit and some fry bread. It's a simple, but careful mix of yeast, flour and water that is then fried in lard until puffy and golden brown. There's even a specific eating technique. You stab your fork into one end and slowly saw it back and open with your butter knife. Then, you slather the whole thing with butter - good butter counts here and drizzly rich maple syrup, boiled down from the area trees. The rich amber oozes into the airy pockets. Each bite is crunchy, chewy, sweetly salty and heavenly. I'm proud to say that I hold the family record for most banacks ever eaten in one sitting - 13. You got that right, buddy - THIRTEEN and don't even think about trying to take me down. I am the Banack Queen and her majesty has deemed you worthy of sharing the recipe. I know chances are good that you'll never attempt these, but trust me when I say, this is the stuff that legends are made out of. This is the thing that my grandmother gave to sustain me.


1/2 cake of compressed yeast dissolved in warm water

3 1/4 c. Flour
1T. Sugar

1t. Salt
2 c. Lukewarm water
Beat until shiny. Mix at 8 PM. Cover and let stand in a warm place.

In AM turn out onto a well floured surface. Cut in rounds. Let rise 1/2 hr or more until doubled. Fry in hot lard in cast iron skillet, shaking constantly until puffed and brown on all sides.

With my first bite I closed my eyes.

Screen door on the back porch slamming. Small bare feet pounding over the mahogany colored hollow wood floors. Dishes clattering. Grease sizzles, spits and snaps. A soft, arthritic hand, cups a small round chin. "There was a little girl that had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead." The banacks are laid out, taking up the entire counter, puffing beneath tea towels. Coffee on the stove top, poured through a mesh strainer into chipped cups. Chairs scraping, oil cloth sticking as warm plates are set upon it. Little pitchers and the orange yellow bottomed butter dish are passed around. The golden banack steaming as the lid is pushed back little fingers pawing it open, sticking to the green glass plates, smearing onto shirt, face and eventually blond hair. Family chortles, teases and recite sonnets for last night's dinner. Lists and debates are begun over the next dinner to come. Summer morning breezes brush the oily air outside and over the greens. Those glorious gone days at Eshquagama.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meritage - Good Times

I am just about ready to pop Jim Cramer one. I've been watching too much NBC lately. He's all over the place, neither the Today show, nor primetime are safe from his screeching brand of financial advisory. From what I've gathered the economy is in the toilet and we're probably all going to end up by the side of some railroad track heating Hobo Soup remembering the good ol' days when the credit card collection agents phoned us at work, begging for the dollars we didn't have. Soon the jackals will be at the door, wielding blunt interments and accepting only Euros.

"Ahh... remember when I drove my car? Sure, it makes a decent jungle gym for the kiddies, but those days before I had to hoof it to work 17 miles each way.... Oh, those were the glory days."

So, yes, fine - there are some things that kind of suck right now. It seems like there's a ticker constantly flashing over my head indicating my shrinking checking account balance and the steady flow of incoming bills. Things keep getting more expensive, but really, is it that bad?

Maybe it's just me. I have a small car, so $45 to fill up, while irritating, isn't going to leave me homeless. Thankfully, I'm not anywhere near foreclosure, neither is anyone else that I know. We still get together every now and again and have some laughs. I'm just glass half full type person, unless of course that glass is full of wine, then it's just gone.

The one major cut back has been more meals at home, less out on the road. Matt's birthday came and went and all we had to show for it were some crusty leftover pork chops and a finely pruned herb garden. I vowed as soon as my paycheck came in, we were going to have a really fine meal. I'm happy to report, my vow fulfilled, there is a new fine dining destination in downtown St. Paul.
I'd enjoyed my one experience at Au Rebours and had been sad to hear that they hadn't been able to make it, but was wary of the new restaurant that took its place. I'd eaten Russell Klein's food a few times while he was working at W.A. Frost and had always left disappointed. I knew it had to be a "It's me, not you" sort of problem because everyone else I spoke to seemed to rave about the food. I couldn't figure out what I was missing.

Perhaps, what was missing, was a place to call his own. I must have been receiving food from the fledglings while at Frost because everything that had at Meritage was superb.

I began with a glass of Prosecco and was delighted by the fizzy little droplets of spring in my glass. The aromas were all bright peachy, pear and golden. The flavor was refreshingly fruity with hints of musky whimsy at the back of my throat. It was refreshingly chilled and light on my tongue.

To amuse my palate I ordered the tuna tartar taco, Matt got the Bloody Mary oyster shooter and we agreed that we'd better try the pommes frites, too.

The raw tuna was lightly dressed with a creamy sauce, loaded into a taro chip and placed upon a bed of shaved spring carrots. The entire thing was just amazing. It was a revelation after the disappointing attempt at a similar dish when I'd dined at Sanctuary. This was heavenly. It was light, sweet and obviously ocean-y. The sweet little carrots were almost like nature's candy, so naturally sugary, they complimented the sweet, raw meat.

Matt chugged his shooter and stared at me, eyes round and bulging from behind his glasses, "Oh, you have to get one of these." When the waitress returned we ordered our entrees and he asked for two more shooters. He was right, I did need to try it. They were silky. Again, there was a faint, fresh taste of the sea, this time it was highlighted with spiky flavors of horseradish and bright saucy fresh tomato juice. "I could eat 6 of these," said Matt.

The fries were good, not great, but the Bearnaise sauce was exquisite. Lemony butter with globs of fresh tarragon jacked up the fry flavor to fancy. The people declaring that Salut's pommes frites are the best are in for some serious competition. These are the same as what they've got, but made by a much more talented hand.

Matt ordered the rabbit saddle stuffed with bunny confit over summer vegetables, while I ordered the chicken. I know, who orders chicken at a restaurant of this caliber? I had heard that this was the crispiest chicken skin that I would find in town. I had to know. Chicken skin is second only to bacon at my alter of the Fat Salty Crisp.

Logically, I know that this is simply chicken under a brick. I should be able to do something similar to this at home, but I know that I'm never going to. For one, I do not have a brick and don't really know how I would go about getting one. Secondly, it could never possibly be this good done in my home with that abomination of a kitchen. Every bite - every nano inch of skin was seared and puffed up crispy like a cracklin. There wasn't a single soggy or chewy bite of chicken. The meat was juicy and after a swim in the pool of juices, delicious.

The barely sauteed spinach was flecked with crunchy bits of salt and pepper. The potatoes were luscious with hunky cloves of melting, roasted garlic.

The rabbit was expertly prepared, there's no question that I would never attempt such a meal at home, either. The tender young meat was wrapped around the succulent confit over bright, incredibly fresh veggies and smudged with a springy fennel sauce. The meat, tender and lovely, the sauce, sprightly, together? Food alchemy. Each flavor bounced off the other, singing springtime carols and doing the mambo. It was a wonderful specimen, highlighting the way that local, fresh flavors of the season always compliment each other best.

Ah, yes, summer is here and indeed, the l-i-v-i-n is easy. Our rich Midwestern soils are springing forth all matter of early season veggies and herbs, each flavor encapsulated in this meal, raw, moist earth, crunchy, dewy, tart, feathery tastes. Now is the time to celebrate this usually chilly patch of land we call home. The promise of wholly locally sourced meals shimmer on the horizon like an oasis. All those long barren winter nights seem to melt away from memory, replaced by fennel fronds and garlic scapes.

We should have had dessert, but I was stuffed at this point. I was talked into ordering a cocktail, though. It was made with Hendrick's gin, lingonberries and elderflower. It was sweet-tart and crisp as a new twenty dollar bill. I took a long sip and settled back into my seat.

I was chatting with our server, Jenn, who is regarding the upcoming Republican National Convention with some trepidation. She said already, people are beginning to arrive in town for it and the restaurant is expected to be packed nightly. Although she's looking forward to the uptick in tip money, she's a little nervous about how she's supposed to be getting to work. The anarchists are constantly threatening the bus schedules, and all parking ramps are going to be closed. Things are looking grim for the locals - tight crowds and big money as far as the eye can see. It will be difficult, but hopefully once the big show is over, people will remember the little gem of a restaurant located in the heart of downtown St. Paul.

I take comfort in that. I'm also heartened that between Meritage, the Strip Club and Heartland, the "other" twin city finally has some achievements to brag about. And, while I know that times are tight and I'm really going to be missing the loot I spent on this dinner a couple of weeks from now, I'm determined not to get too worked up about it. Sure, times are a little difficult and scary, but I've got the love of a good man, great friends, healthy family and a tummy full of the crispiest chicken this small town girl has ever tasted. I'd say things are gonna be alright.