Tuesday, August 25, 2009

thankful tuesdays: good reads

This Tuesday I am thankful for good books.

We are so lucky in Milwaukee to have an excellent library system. We are also lucky that the ashes of the former Harry W. Schwartz stores are being revitalized. In my neck of the woods, it's Boswell Books, where I recently visited for the first time.

I haven't had a chance to plow through any of the reads I picked up there, but I did want to share my thoughts on a book I reserved from the library after reading about it on the Wisconsin Public Radio Here on Earth Podcast.

I'm not generally a chick-lit fan (Bridget Jones and Jane Austen excluded), but the conversation with Margot Berwin about her debut novel intrigued me. Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire didn't break any new literary ground, but it was the first book I've read in a long time that I just could not put down. When I wasn't reading it, I was plotting time to get back to it. Berwin knows how to craft a story and the reader becomes completely invested in the world of botany, suspense and romance she creates. If you are looking for a quick, entertaining and at times, salacious, summer read, I highly recommend this novel.

I seem to have lucked out as I spotted White Tiger on the shelf today when I went to return Hothouse. I have to wrap this blog up to get back to reading it. I heard lots of buzz about it last year when the author, Aravind Adiga, upset literary stalwarts to win the Booker Prize. As I wrote to my friend and India travel companion, Jason, this evening:

I almost called you on page 7 after noticing that almost every single word describes our trip in general.

I have no idea how it ends, or where exactly the plot is going yet, but I guarantee you it's better than Slumdog.
I'll be sure to share my thoughts on this blog when I finish the book (which looks to be this week at the rate I'm flying through it).

WTFisconsin: No Drinking in Bars

I am all for reforms.

In fact, I came across a wonderful blog post this afternoon from James Rowen perfectly outlining how ridiculous it is for folks from both sides of the aisle to shut themselves off to new proposals.

I am also all for reforms that will address the drunk driving crisis in the State of Wisconsin. We should not have people like this guy in Manitowoc still on the road after 12 DUIs. I recognize the significance of the issues raised in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's recent series "Wasted in Wisconsin."

However, there is a new idea on the table that I just can't get behind.

Bartenders would have to maintain absolute sobriety under a proposal debated by a state Assembly panel Tuesday.

Being under the influence of alcohol or partying with customers is problematic for servers, bill author Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) told the Assembly’s Committee on Urban and Local Affairs Tuesday. The committee also heard testimony on another proposal from Zepnick that would ban “all you can drink” specials.

Both are aimed at reducing the rate of drunken driving in Wisconsin.

Honestly, I think this makes us liberals who fought so hard for the statewide smoking ban look like temperance flag waving fun-killers. While the smoking ban benefits everyone's health, ushers Wisconsin toward the 21st century, and long-term will be better for tavern business, a ban on drinking employees and on drink specials dents a significant part of Wisconsin culture.

In regards to bartenders drinking on the job--that should completely be the choice of the employer. I know of plenty of bars/restaurants that don't allow their employees to drink on the job. I also know of advertising agencies that encourage drinking. Then consider our brewery and growing distillery industry. Why just apply this law to bartenders? Are the brewers not going to be able to test their wares?

I want my bartender to be able to recommend beers, wines and cocktails to me. If they are unable to try those while on the clock, there will be years of institutional knowledge killed in the state. I also want to continue to buy my bartender a drink if I've gotten exceptional service or they've listened to a sob story.

Wisconsin's cocktail culture is part of what makes the state unique. It's part of why I, a transplanted young professional, stay here. Obviously I don't want these employees driving home after a shift of drinking. But most employees are not drinking their entire shift. Why punish everyone and kill a culture because of a few stupid individuals? I guarantee if a person is an alcoholic, they're going to find a way to drink even when they're not on the clock.

In regards to banning certain drink specials, again, I don't think this is going to address the greater issue of drunk driving. And why a ban? Why not charge a fee to bars who want to offer these specials and partner with a cab company for a "safe ride home" program?

Or, here's another novel idea, why don't we invest more in public transportation infrastructure to give Milwaukeeans another option to get home from the bar?

Perhaps what aggravates me the most is that an extreme proposal like this is going to make the talk radio guys foam at the mouth. At a time when it has never been more critical to have bipartisan cooperation on critical issues like the economy, health care and transportation infrastructure, I am embarrassed as a Democrat to throw a big Prohibition Piñata over to the Republicans.

monday munchies: tomato canning and innercity peaches

Summer has been flying by faster than I can keep up. Please excuse me new readers for the slacking, but trust me, you'll hear much from me in the winter.

Of course, much of my time in the summer is spent in the kitchen, trying to tame the growing amount of bounty I get from my Rare Earth Farm CSA each week, as well as the goodies I pick up at the Easttown Farmers Market.

Fortunately this summer I have been able to attend the "Savor the Taste of Summer" food preservation series at the Urban Ecology Center. I had my third course last Thursday night, focusing on tomato canning. Above is a picture of the crushed tomatoes (left) and salsa (right) that our class made. I was on the salsa team, along with my friend Kim (it's nice to have a canning buddy). Tomatoes are definitely a little more time-intensive than jam, and you have to be more careful about adding the right amount of acid, but I think the skills I learned will come in handy when the tomato harvest gets here. Hopefully it will be soon, as the cold weather and tomato fungus have thrown some wrenches into the process.

The best thing I learned in class had nothing to do with tomatoes at all. It was the fact that there is a peach orchard just three blocks from my work, in the middle of Milwaukee's central city. I had heard of Walnut Way before and the work they are doing in the community, but had no idea the extent of it. My instructor and farmer-classmate were discussing the delicious peaches they'd gotten from there. I had to check it out the next day, so on my lunch break I walked over. Not only did I find a peach orchard, but several lots of beautiful lush gardens and a gorgeous renovated Victorian home in an area many assume is only blight and decay. The folks at Walnut Way were absolutely gracious and kind, as well as enthusiastic to tell me all about their wares. I bought a dozen peaches and a vial of honey, from the bees they raise on one of their lots. (I've been told one should eat local honey to help with allergies; I couldn't think of honey more local than this). The enthusiasm of this organization was contagious and I practically skipped back to the office to spread the good news. My co-workers were astonished and a couple rushed over later to get their own peaches.

While it was hard to resist eating my entire bag of peaches that afternoon, I did make a peach cobbler (above) over the weekend. I have to say, the magic of Walnut Way was in every bite of their fruit, and I will definitely be returning. It truly brings a smile to face when I learn about groups like Walnut Way and Growing Power bringing new life to Milwaukee's economically-depressed areas through sustainable agriculture and getting the neighborhoods in touch with the environment.

Another big event last week was cooking birthday dinner for my friend Maribeth, and hosting a dinner party on a Wednesday night. Mar requested spaghetti, as she likes my sauce. Since tomatoes aren't up yet, I threw several cans of diced, stewed, pasted, etc. tomatoes from Trader Joe's along with garlic and spices into my electric skillet and let it stew for a couple hours. Looking forward to next year when I can use my own canned goods. I also used up several of my carrots, beets and one of the greenhouse tomatoes I had, in a salad.

The highlight of the dinner though, was Becky's Grizzly Man inspired cake, complete with bear cubs. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out the clip below.

Finally, in preparation for the Milwaukee Eat Local Challenge (which I'll only be here about a week of, since I'll be making trips to San Francisco and Chicago during the first two weeks of September), Becky and I went to the Eat Local Challenge Fair on Sunday and I continued to experiment with local foods in the kitchen.

Roasted Cauliflower, from the Commander's Palace cookbook

Zucchini and tomato pasta

Zucchini muffin and fresh cantaloupe (nothing like fruit from the farmer's market!)

Finally, broccoli gazpacho, which I winged the recipe for. About 2 cups of broccoli steamed, medium onion chopped, green pepper chopped, cup of cilantro chopped -- throw it in a blender with about a cup of yogurt and a cup of milk and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Voila!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

music madness: lollapalooza recap

As you know, I headed to Lollapalooza last weekend to catch some of my favorite bands and check out some new ones. As usual, I did not hit up every band on my list, but I did get in some good shows. Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate very well this year, so my perspective of the concerts is somewhat skewed by the pouring rain on Friday and extreme heat of Sunday.

Overall, I enjoyed what may be my last "Lolla" (I'll hit 30 in January and not sure if I can deal with festivals much longer), and had the added bonus of catching up with great friends in addition to catching great music.


After a frustrating early-morning train ride, I was extremely glad that The Henry Clay People was totally worth the trip. I would love to catch these guys in a smoky bar, definitely real rock n' roll. Catchy originals and the added cover of "Running on Empty" was a highlight of the fest for me. My first "I'm old" moment though, as some of the kids around me definitely weren't familiar with the song. Yikes.

Next up was the highly energetic Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, another band probably best seen at a smaller venue. They were so much fun and I would absolutely catch them again. Glad my friends recommended I make this a "don't miss" of my weekend. Their current album is a good-time listen. I suggest you check it out.

At the end of BJL, I met up with my pal Brian from college over at The Gaslight Anthem. There's a ton of hype around this band because of some Springsteen-factors, but I think they may be the Slumdog Millionaire of hot bands for me -- I just didn't love it. Honestly, all the songs sounded sort of the same, and the dudes were way too clean cut (albiet for their tattoo-sleeves) for my vision of real-rock. If I want to listen to The Boss, I'll stick to Bruce himself, or The Hold Steady.

Luckily during this show I shared Brian's umbrella and didn't notice how much the rain had picked up. Unluckily, I headed over to my next show unprepared.

I love, love, love me some Bon Iver. Wisconsin's favorite indie son was my top album (and second best concert) of 2009. Too bad mother nature (and suburban high schools girls belting out "Skinny Love") ruined his Lolla set for me. Lucky for Milwaukeeans, Justin Vernon will be chairing AIDS Walk Wisconsin and performing at the Riverside Theater on October 11. I am going to try my best to make it to both.

I sacrificed catching Ben Folds to spend the best $5 of the weekend -- on a lovely blue poncho. It did little to dry me off, but it did prevent me from completely drowning during the rest of the night.

Fleet Foxes did not disappoint with their beautiful, haunting melodies. The poncho enabled me to enjoy the show a bit more, but this is another one I'd like to see in a concert hall versus a wet park.

By this point I'd resolved to sacrifice the headliners and head out a little early to a warm, dry place. But not before I caught what was my guaranteed album of the year (more on that later).

The Decemberists Riverside Theater show is likely going to be my concert of the year, so the Lolla show was like a second scoop of ice cream for me. It was great to hear Hazards of Love played straight through again and see Shara Worden steal the show once more. However, the hour set time didn't allow for any audience interaction and regular Decemberists tunes after the rock opera. The set was a perfect way to end the long day for me.


Spending the morning with my dear hosts allowed me to avoid the bulk of the sweltering heat of the day.

I arrived, water in hand, just in time for Los Campesinos! This band has enough insane energy to be great in a small venue or a giant stage. This was also a band where I saw a couple members wandering around the grounds like normal people. I think they definitely win the award for "Band I'd Most Like to Be Buds With." And not just because they're Welsh (therefore awesome) or because they are really into the stage dives.

After LC! I met up with my friend Keiker who came down from Milwaukee for the day. She and I are both huge TV on the Radio fans, so we were both looking forward to that in the evening. We met up at the Kidzapalooza Stage after I got a text alert that there was a surprise Band of Horses set scheduled. They played just around 2-3 songs, but it was a nice time to sit in the shade.

Keiker and I split up so I could check out Blind Pilot on another small stage. They opened for The Decemberists in Milwaukee, but it was nice to get a chance to really give them a listen. Their album is very tight and another strong recommendation for 2009.

I headed over to Santigold next and as luck would have it ran into Keiker, which was a fantastic twist of fate since AT&T service was horrific on the grounds. She put on an over-the-top show, and I was disappointed I couldn't even get a good jumbotron shot of the outfits of her and the back up dancers. Keiker and I decided to head over to get a solid spot for TVOTR. This worked out perfectly -- we could still hear Santi and we landed a fabulous position.

This was the show of the festival. I wish Tunde Adebimpe and crew would come to Milwaukee sometime. I have been a long-time fan of the albums, but never imagined the band would be so dynamic live. Their songs on the albums are so nuanced, from dark & slow to upbeat & dancey, but live each performance in the set had a definitive spark.

Keiker and I both left this one with huge smiles on our faces. We grabbed some food, caught some of Ben Harper and the Relentless7, and staked a place for the headliner.

I didn't have any expectations for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but had I, Karen O. would have blown them away. The woman is the Chrissy Hynde of the Millenials, and definitely (after Shara Worden) the rockstar I'd most want to be. Even though my concert buddy had to head out halfway through the show, I stuck around and danced out the rest of the set solo.


Sunday was hot. Really, really hot. I missed the days when Lolla was a two-day festival. 

I started out with Ra Ra Riot, which admittedly was a huge disappointment. I'd heard their live performance talked up, but I think the issue really may have been my baking under the blazing sun. I would give them a second chance in a venue like Turner Hall, when I wasn't 120 degrees.

Halfway through RRR, my friend Ryan texted me that he was waiting by the Bat for Lashes stage. I didn't find him, but I spotted an opening front and center under the stage. As soon as Natasha Khan stepped on stage I was captivated. This show was in tight running with TV on the Radio for best of the fest. I really hope the Pabst/Turner group can bring BFL to Milwaukee as I'd absolutely see this magical show again. And Two Suns now may beating out Hazards of Love for album of the year.

Mesmerized and sweltering, I left Bat for Lashes, I headed to refill my water and connect with friends. Walking away from the stage I saw a pale hippie pass out, eyes roll back into head, head thump on the dirt. Terrifying. Fortunately the medical staff saw this at the same time, so I could move on, the horrible image embedded in my head.

It was really, really hot.

I found Ryan over at Kaiser Chiefs, a band which I'm not a huge fan. We chatted a bit and I left to catch Gang Gang Dance at a shaded stage on the other side of the grounds.

This was the perfect chill group to take a nice break with. I watched about half the set and then connected with my old co-worker, Darcie, who I found out was at the festival via Twitter. We found a spot of one of the staircases to catch Vampire Weekend, who failed to impress. Their set wasn't much different than the one at Turner in April 2008 and they were clearly slowing down their songs to fill the hour timeslot. Thus, one of my favorite shows of '08 turned into one of the most forgettable of '09.

Our small group packed up to head over to the band usurping the "it" title.

Passion Pit brought it. The small stage they were on was PACKED and they could've easily owned the mainstage.  While they definitely straddle the border between indie and emo, they fall on the Death Cab side of the line (aka bands I really do like). I will be downloading Manners soon.

I ended up staying through the whole set, which caused me to miss much of Dan Auerbach, who my friend Brian claims put on the best show of the festival. I will have to try and catch him in Milwaukee this fall.

Everyone was a little (well a lotta) pissed at Lou Reed. He started his set nearly 15 minutes late, and I guess threw off the rest of the festival for the evening. I was happy to hear "Sweet Jane" before I had to sprint to the train station (I opted to skip the later Megabus), but underimpressed overall.

Lou was responsible however, for my 10 seconds of VIPness at the festival. For some inexplicable reason the exit I'd used the previous two evenings was closed on Sunday until the end of the festival. After explaining to two sympathetic guards that I didn't have time to wander through the grounds as Lou's lateness was pushing my time to get to the train, they directed me to the side of the stage. There, security escorted me out the VIP exit backstage. I didn't push my luck and look around or whip out my iPhone. But I can tell you that the special folks use a portapotty just like the rest of us.

Speaking of "special people," I think the two British-looking dudes are Kaiser Chiefs, but is the dude in the middle the dude from The Hangover? Or just a look-a-like? You be the judge in the comments.

Monday, August 10, 2009

monday munchies: too hot too cook

Only a couple of dishes to post this week, as summer has finally arrived, making time in the kitchen a wee bit unbearable. I was also out of town this weekend, so I relied on the food of friends and festivals.

Last week I whipped up this pasta dish with the remainder of my cilantro pesto and fresh tomatoes.

Tonight I waited until 8:30 p.m. for the heat to subside so I could use some extraneous veggies. The summer squash, onion and kale tacos turned out really well. And didn't create too much heat! I didn't have salsa, or peppers, so I flavored with the leftover gazpacho I ordered at Alterra last week. Worked out great!

On Sunday, I was treated to my friend Heather's culinary chops. She whipped up a delicious pre-Lolla breakfast of French Toast and turkey sausage. It was brilliant and staved off the need for too much festival food.

Heather, her husband, Sam, and I also enjoyed a fantastic brunch on Saturday. I'd been to this place a couple of years ago and had a great experience, but I wasn't sure if I'd just built it up in my mind. Glad to find out, it's still wonderful. I highly recommend the all-you-can-eat brunch at Joey's Brickhouse if you're ever in Chicago. It's made-to-order and drinks are between $1 (Miller Lite) and $4 (top shelf Bloody).

Hopefully the weather will cool down a little bit, as I have loads of veggies to use up from my CSA.

Stay tuned for a Lolla recap later this week!

Friday, August 7, 2009

WTFWisconsin: Intermodal Insanity

The letter I just sent to Amtrak:

I need to be reimbursed for the $9 surcharge I had to pay on the Amtrak Hiawatha Line from Milwaukee to Chicago at 8 am on Friday, August 7.

Let me start out by saying that I love Amtrak. I am always in favor of the system getting additional funding and would love to see the US invest in a european style rail network. Unfortunately, my experience this morning more closely resembled the organization of train travel in India (translate ridiculous) versus an efficient system.

I arrived at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station with 20 minutes to get my ticket to Chicago. This is usually plenty of time. I walked inside to find three HUGE lines. One was expected--the line to board the train. Another was somewhat expected--the line for the staffed ticket counter. The third was mindblowingly unexplainable--the one to use the automatic ticket kiosks. Then it was explained two-fold, both reasons that were completely avoidable. Two simple solutions that could have prevented Amtrak from severely angering dozens of customers as well as inconveniencing it's own onboard staff.

I misspoke when I said kiosks, plural. For some ungodly reason there is only  ONE automatic ticket kiosk for the 2nd busiest train line in the United States. This seems woefully inadequate. To make matters worse, those passengers who had the foresight to purchase tickets online in advance were required to stand in this line as well. How in any universe does this make sense?

To make matters worse, the ticketing staff did not assist in reassuring the growing, and increasingly disgruntled, crowds that everyone would get on the train. Much later, the conductor (lecturing those of us who purchased onboard) said that he held the train two extra minutes for the lines to clear. I'm certain it would have been longer of several of us had not decided to purchase on board versus risk missing the train. The fact that delaying the train was even feasible was NEVER communicated to us. In fact it was another PASSENGER who pointed out you could buy onboard.

I don't think I should be charged extra for Amtrak's faulty ticketing logistics. I have learned a lesson about arriving earlier, but moreso I hope Amtrak learns a lesson about adding kiosks and true e-ticketing.

Luckily I have plans to take Megabus back on Sunday. I only have to show them a confirmation number from their website.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

music madness: lollapalooza preview

I'm really looking forward to my weekend in Chicago at Lollapalooza. This will be my fourth Lolla (I only missed the '07 festival) and while the headliners aren't overly crazy, I'm stoked for many of the smaller acts.

Here's a preview of who I'm planning to catch. Asterisk is the first timers for me.


Saturday (and my lazy blogger kicks in here, because I HAVE to get to bed)
  • Ra Ra Riot*
  • Bat For Lashes*
  • The Raveonettes
  • Gang Gang Dance*
  • Vampire Weekend - BLAAAAAKE'S GOT A NEW FACE!
  • Passion Pit*
  • Dan Auerbach (half-asterisk, as I've caught the Black Keys plenty o' times)
  • Lou Reed* - !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Band of Horses
A huge thanks to my friends Heather & Sam for their hospitality this weekend.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

call to action: solomon juneau's birthday

I will be in Chicago for Lollapalooza this weekend, but for those of you who around, definitely check out a cool event on Sunday sponsored by a new group in town - the Juneau Park Friends.

You are Invited to a Juneau Park Friends Birthday Celebration!

Join members of our organization and neighbors of Juneau Park to celebrate Solomon Juneau’s Birthday

Sunday, August 9, 2009
1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Meet “Solomon” and Learn About his Historical Impact on Milwaukee

Cake, Provided by Metro Market & East Pointe Pick‘n Save, will be Served Next to Solomon Juneau’s Statue

Free cake? Seriously folks, check it out!

midweek munchies: yes! i did can! (and cheesecake!)

Okay, so the excitement as of late has deterred me from my other big culinary news of late.

I can!

I mentioned earlier in the summer that I took a class through the Urban Ecology Center to learn the art of jams and jellies. Well, summer has flown by and only this weekend, waiting (with a cleared calendar) for one of my best friends to roll into town, did I find a chunk of time to attempt canning. Although I didn't get to the strawberries tucked away in my freezer, I did take care of the 5lbs of cherries and blueberries (well, most of them) that my friend Kim graciously arranged for me to enjoy from her CSA.

I guess only time will tell if I did everything correctly, but I have 5 jars of brandied cherries and 6 jars of blueberry spice jam stored away in the cupboard. There was a small amount of the blueberry spice jam leftover and I must say it's been delicious on the breadmaker bread I made this week as well.

I also treated my coworkers to some blueberry cornbread muffins a la Martha last week.

While I still have to polish off the blueberries (though they've been mighty tasty with yogurt and granola every morning), the remaining cherries ended up atop one of the most decadent deserts I've ever created. Following the basics a random blog recipe for goat cheese cheesecake I went to town on Saturday afternoon. I used Ruegsegger Farms goat cheese for my base and eggs from my Rare Earth Farm CSA to keep it mostly local. For an added layer of awesome, I substituted Anna's Almond Cinnamon Thins for the crust in lieu of plain old graham crackers. I ended up having to cook it about an hour (as opposed to the 30-40 mins in the blog), but it was worth it. Seriously, cheesecake heaven. I was happy to share with friends throughout the weekend!

meghan & julie & julia

Welcome everyone who has popped over from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. I hope you've taken the time to skim a bit of my blog. If you like what you see, please come on back. If you don't, please don't leave a nasty comment. In the immortal words of Thumper, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." On that note, constructive criticism and healthy debate is always appreciated!

I also encourage you to check out the other fabulous bloggers involved in the project. I signed up for all their RSS feeds, especially if any of them continue to take on this challenge.

While many of you probably read my whole tale over at the JS, I'm including my unedited version below (with links to the vendors I used in the process).

The True Adventures of Meghan and 4 Lobsters

It all started with twittering about radishes.

I’d been on a radish kick earlier this summer and when the Journal-Sentinel’s PostCollegeCook was looking for radish recipes via social media I was happy to oblige.

Little did I know an insignificant spicy root vegetable would lead me to taking on the master—Ms. Julia Child.

After some tweets back and forth, sharing a radish slaw and radish tart recipe I noticed a call out from the JS looking for twentysomething bloggers to try a “food challenge.” Intrigued, and always hunting for recipes and experiences to fill my “Monday Munchies” blog column, I followed up.

This wasn’t any old challenge. This was a tie-in with the forthcoming Julie/Julia biopic profiling the original food superstar and an NYC blogger trying to learn her cooking methods. I was to roleplay the blogger role, and well, Julia was to manifest through her classic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Always up for a good test, and looking for an excuse to finally clean my apartment and have a few friends over for food and wine, I took the assignment.

I don’t consider myself a great chef, but like Julia Child, who learned midlife how to tackle the gourmet, I don’t shy away from throwing myself wholly and fearlessly into the kitchen. Unlike Julia, I’m a little bit more free-form of a cook. She’s more classical musician, I’m a bit more jazz. I usually throw in “whatever.” But, I acquiesced, it would probably behoove me to follow directions and see what turns out.

Where to start in emulating a pop cultural touchstone of my childhood (just weeks after another had so publicly been mourned)? How to begin following in the footsteps of my farmshare partner, Becky’s, distant relative? Each week we divvy up our vegetables, but isn’t she genetically predisposed to make them gourmet?

I didn’t want to cop out and try something that would be easy for me. I had the added challenge of avoiding any recipe that involved red meat or pork, since I don’t eat them. Let me tell you, this is extremely difficult considering even most veggie dishes require bacon fat or beef bullion.

After seriously reflecting on duck, I flipped to the seafood section. Page 221 called out to me. Homard Thermidor – Lobster Thermador, Gratinéed in its Shell.

Hmm…sounds delicious.

But a lot of work! But Julia promises “it is not a particularly difficult dish to execute.” Well, then okay, I’ll give it a go.

I read and reread the recipe for a week. Unfortunately lobster is not quite something you can give a dry run. Like studying for an exam, I plan my strategy. I invite my guinea pigs, providing full disclosure as to what this all about. The dish is built for six, but only three can make it.

“Good, I’ll keep the death toll to a minimum,” I joke.

I invite only my most foodie-freak friends. The ones who will tell me if it totally sucks. They decide to take on the challenge themselves. Aimee offers to bring an escargot appetizer. Jason pledges to make Julia’s chocolate mousse for dessert.

Suddenly this is becoming very real.

I make one side dish the night before (potato salad with radicchio and cilantro pesto), otherwise there’s not much advance prep I can do. The big day arrives.

I drag myself out of bed and hop on my bike over to Blatz Liquor to pick up the vermouth and cognac Julia calls for, as well as some wine to accompany dinner. They’re closed. I take this as a bad omen.

Running a bit behind schedule (according to the strategy in my head), I turn the bike down Broadway to the Milwaukee Public Market. First stop, Good Harvest Market. Committed to natural and organic ingredients, it’s great to have this store close to home. I pick up the required vegetables, European style butter (what better for French cooking?), and organic cream. Being a slow food proponent, I was a bit disappointed to find out that even the loose vegetables, according to the cashier, “were probably from California,” but justified as an homage to SoCal native JC.

Next, to the Spice House – one of those places that would be on my “top five first stops if I ever won the lottery.” I am excited to see that they now have “certified organic” spices and grabbed cayenne pepper and thyme. I also stock up on tarragon and dry mustard, as called for in the three-page recipe. The helpful clerk tells me other uses for the dry mustard, which was a new herb for me. Apparently I can mix it in with tuna salad or mayo for a “nice kick.”

I swing by the West Allis Cheese Shoppe to grab some shredded Sartori Parmesan, then finally, show time. I walk slowly but intently to St. Paul Fish Market and look down at my shopping list one last time.

“Three two pound lobsters please, “ I ask.

The kid behind the counter politely explains that they don’t carry any lobsters that large. Just about a pound and a quarter.

Crap. Bad omen number two.

Doing some quick math (as well as thinking about the limited cooking supplies I have at home), I opt for “four of the fattest lobsters you have.”

My four petite homards, get loaded into a long styrofoam cooler. I request they wrap it with packing tape so I can flip it vertically in my bike basket.

“I don’t want lobsters running loose on Wisconsin Avenue.”

After a precarious ride home, avoiding any spills or attacks by PETA activists privy to the massacre I will soon commit, I drop my crustacean pals off at the apartment, then head back to Blatz Liquor.

Thanks to twitter, they’re ready for me. There’s a nice small bottle of dry vermouth and I opt for brandy over the more expensive cognac. Being an “accidental Wisconsinite,” I still haven’t embraced the brandy/cognac thing and know the bottle will go unused unless I cook with it again.

After purchasing my cooking liquor, I realize I need wine pairings. The clerk assists me in selecting a Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier blend, as well as Charles Smith’s Kung Fu Girl Reisling. I’m taken with the idea that I should have a cold beer to sip while cooking, so he directs me to a new beer, Southern Tier Brewery’s Crème Brulee Stout.

Shopping is complete. Time to really attack the task at hand.

Not ready to face reality, I call my parents as I walk into my apartment. I don’t want to tell them what’s going on, so I get 10 more minutes of avoiding reality until the fighter jets for the airshow start up and I am forced to get off the phone.

I change into my best ‘50s housewife dress and take a deep breath. It’s go time.

I start slicing and dicing my veggies. I learn from Julia the proper way to clean mushrooms (soak in a basin of cold water and rub dirt off with your fingers, drain and wash again). I cheat a little with some of my Pampered Chef gadgetry. No thin slicing when I have a food plane. I don’t want a trip to the ER and this is a good way to avoid that.

While in the prep phase I hear my friends clawing at the Styrofoam. It’s a little off-putting but I concentrate on the task at hand.

Everything is ready and I read and reread the recipe about 50 times in a minute. It just doesn’t seem right that there’s only about 4 cups of liquid in my huge canning kettle (which conveniently doubles as a lobster pot). Don’t you boil lobster?

Apparently you steam them in this case, after simmering herbs and vegetables in the water for 15 minutes prior. Things are starting to smell good in the kitchen. And I am ready to escort the little guys to Lobster Death Camp.

I successfully make it through step one. Having spent the first year of my life in Maine, I’m unfazed by the slaughter. The lobster steams to a pleasing bright red and the mushrooms I simultaneously stewed in butter look perfect as well.

All is right in the world.

Unbeknownst to me, that was the easy part.

I’m instructed to split the lobsters in two, but leave the shells intact. What sort of laser beam eye, magic powers did Julia Child have to divide lobsters? I use my biggest, sharpest knife, but there’s shell flying everywhere. I manage to salvage the tails pretty much intact. The heads/torsos are a different story. I need to remove the “sand sacks” and intestines, but I have no idea how to identify those. I end up tossing a lot of creature and am left with a shell of the shell.

I figure I’m blessed by the fact the cookbook doesn’t include photos.

At this point I can set the lobsters aside, after scraping that green oozy stuff into a “sieve” and adding to my sauce. Not quite sure what qualifies as a sieve, I use the sifter I got at IKEA. Seems to work.

Sauce time is hard. I’m supposed to reduce the mushroom juice mixed in with the lobster juice to 2 1/4 cups. How are you supposed to measure that when it’s boiling hot and in a ginormous container? I eyeball it, but only get about 1 1/4 cups. I justify this with that fact that I have skinnier lobsters. Lacking the energy or latent fraction skills to substitute other ingredients, I sally forth. The sauce gets a little chunky, but I just keep beating and adding in more cream. I feel a sense of pride using egg yolks from my CSA farm, Rare Earth, since I’ve had to neglect the local in a lot of this process. I’m happy this part includes the instructions “taste carefully for seasoning.” Although the sauce looks a little wonky, it tastes great. I’m sold on the dry mustard.

I am not sure if when Julia Child ended the sauce section with “set aside,” she meant for over an hour while you meticulously pick out lobster meat, but that’s what happens next.

I further massacre the lobster by picking the meat out of the tails and claws. I don’t have any of the lobster tools, so I use a fork, knife and my lemon hand juicer to crack the shells. After what seems like forever, I have a heaping bowl of meat, which I then cut into the arbitrary 3/8” size cubes. Seeing as most of the meat is somewhat stringy, I wing it, knowing I’m almost to the end of the tunnel.

Although by this point I’d cracked open the beer, I’d realize it would be better suited to go with dessert than to cool me off in the kitchen. Thus, I have no glass to raise when I get to the magical words “Final assembly.”

All the steps suddenly make sense. I sauté the meat in the cognac (and more butter!), fold in the mushrooms, and some of the sauce (which I reheat and add more cream to, as I’m still not sure about the consistency), and prep it to “heap into shells.” The shells seem purely decorative at this point, and although it doesn’t call for it, I clean off the pieces I have left before I put anything “into” them. Mostly it’s just “on top of,” but it looks like it’ll do. At this point I reach the magical asterisk in Julia’s recipe, which means I can put the pan in the fridge and wait to bake.

I decide to make a pitcher of lemon cucumber water before starting on my sides. I toss my potholders on the stove and go out on the balcony to pick mint and get some fresh air. I come back in and rinse the mint, a faint burning smell wafting up my nose. I turn around and see open flame. My potholders are smoldering. Apparently I was so excited to get to the asterisk, I forgot to turn off the burner.

Bad omen number three.

My friends arrive shortly. Yesh with fresh flowers, Jason with mousse and Aimee with snails. We visit and I chop the green and purple beans for a side and prep an easy summer salad and vinaigrette. While we eat our escargot, I toss the lobster in the oven and pray. I’ve already braved fire today, I just want this to turn out okay.

The timer beeps and the moment of truth arrives. The appetizer course was out of this world and I hope I’m not a disappointment. I arrange the dish on a serving platter with lemon and parsley. I feel I’d make up for the half-assed shell job. My friends are impressed when I walk into the dining room with the platter. They all dish up, while I try and finish my first course.

Then I hear it.

The mmmms. At first I think they’re being polite. But then Aimee declares:

“If I’m ever on death row, this is the last meal that I’ll request.”

The serving dish makes its way around again. I’d planned to repurpose this for lunch tomorrow, but I look over and see Jason greedily scooping seconds off the platter and Yesh sopping up every last morsel on her plate.

The omens had stopped at three. My friends were happy and my dish definitely blew my own expectations. I didn’t know that I had it in me. I’d love to challenge myself again, but I think I’d need to sleep for days before attempting another five hour kitchen marathon.

Reflecting on this project, I realized that in the past year I’ve really ramped up both my cooking and my blogging. Much of the cause has been becoming single and needing to find an outlet. Ironically, Julia Child learned to cook to please her husband. I learned to cook to please myself.

At any rate, that's the whole tale, in a nutshell.

What other culinary adventures would you like to know about? Please leave in the comments.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

monday munchies & thankful tuesday: my name in lights

I alluded to this last week, but here it is.

I participated in a Julie & Julia tie-in for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and I'm featured in today's food section.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

I have lots of other munchies to post, including my first home-canning experience, but please soak in my 15 minutes first. And pick up a print copy if you can!

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