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Alcuin

eG Foodblog: Alcuin (2011) - In the middle: Eating and Drinking on the

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Hi everyone!

I'm Alcuin (aka Josh) and welcome to my foodblog, brought to you directly from the isthmus of Madison, WI.

First a little about me. I grew up in Philadelphia and its suburbs. My mom lived in Delaware County (it was suburban enough for me to have a pony, grow up picking wild berries, fetching eggs from my great grandmothers chickens, and all the rest). My dad lived in the city. These two places are where I learned to eat.

My mom was a cook who specialized in French food; she later became a personal chef and still is. Not only is she especially skilled, she was always an adventurous cook trying to learn new things. This, even more than the knife skills and focus on execution that I learned from her, is the main motivation of my cooking. I'm always seeking out new lines of flight when it comes to food, but over the years I've developed a stable of personal dishes and ways of making them that I really like. We'll be seeing some of them through the course of the week.

From my dad I learned where to get the best pizza and cheese steaks. It was from him that I learned about the glories of Pork Italiano, which is an elemental combination for me: rich moist pork, braised bitter greens, salty sharp provelone, and some hot peppers liberally applied if you got 'em. Everything you could ask for, a harmony greater than the sum of its parts. Seeking that supernatural harmony is the motivation of my cooking.

My dad's side of the family was also Italian-American. Vivid memories still guide me: Aunt Anna (pronounced AnnDanna) working dough through the chitarra, eating meatballs flecked with little lumps of potatoes (she used mashed potatoes, lumpy, to tenderize the balls), garlicky greens and beans for lunch. She worked in a Port Richmond kitchen that was tiny and outmoded to be sure, but that was enlarged by the sureness of her kitchen work and the tradition that worked its way out of her knowing hands. That's an image that sticks with me, and keeps me rooted in the simplicity that my vertical piston sausage stuffer, standmixer, food processor, and the internet with all its glorious excess of information can work to distract me from.

I moved to the midwest for graduate school in medieval literature (my field is Old English literature: Bede, Beowulf, King Alfred, et al). I had never been anywhere near any midwestern state, and probably would have had to think a little to sort out the region on a map. So I had a lot of expectations ready to be squared with the actual reality of the place: I knew of cheese, beer, and walleye and that was about it.

When I got here, I asked somebody where to get some cheese and they pointed me to a small market nearby. I had been working at a deli in northern Delaware (closed now) that specialized in European cheese and meats (the cheese selection was amazing, you could get smoked eel cut to order, foie gras and corned veal tongue was always on offer). To say the least, I was disappointed by the store: there was hardly any Wisconsin cheese! I thought for a while that Wisconsin's fame for cheese rested only on old worn-out tradition and newer mega-producers like Sargento and I felt myself bereft of the sophisticated offerings I was used to. Also, I couldn't get a hoagie or a steak to save my life. Luckily I was completely wrong about what I thought was a foodless place. It turned out thought that my eyes were just looking somewhere else, something I first discovered when I started going to farmer's markets, which are a fixture here (11 of them happen throughout the week in Madison alone) whereas I never knew of one in northern Delaware where I lived from the ages of 18-23 while going to undergrad. In really digging beneath the surface of the place, which the farmer's markets first taught me to do, all manner of expectations were bound to be and were overturned.

I lived in north Wilmington, Delaware before coming to Madison. The place was and is a wasteland of sorts for non-corporate food. It is far too hard to find a place there that's not a franchise or chain of some sort. Madison is completely the opposite: on the isthmus, where I live, there are hardly any fast food places. If you want fast food, you have to drive to the far west or east side of the town. Or you can go down State St, the boulevard that is the homebase of college students, but even there chains are few and far between.

So I began to eat locally, even before it was cool (!?). I got into local farms, local food, and local beer all of which are in such abundant supply, it seems sometimes that you have to work not to eat locally around here. Madison is also the place where I really started to cook. After I moved here for grad school, I was all alone when it came to food in a strange place where I no longer had my daily bread or even my sandwich shops. My mom is force in the kitchen (that's a euphemism); she runs it with a vision, no matter what she's cooking, and with a strict, keen eye. Getting out from under her wing too, I had to do it myself: and it turned out I loved to cook even more than I'd thought. I started perfecting recipes, learning to bake bread, dabbling in charcuterie to replace what I moved away from. That effort to replace and recover what I'd moved away from became something different. It became less an exercise of replacement and more of an exercise in emplacement. As I started looking for the best ingredients, my own philosophy towards food shaped itself: first, do no harm.

I cook all manner of things, and there's very little I don't like (I can't think of anything at the moment!). So this week we'll have beer, we'll have cheese, we'll have bread, we'll have cocktails, and we'll have whatever food it occurs to me to make. I'm leaning toward Ma Po Tofu tonight; my girlfriend just brought me home last night some fresh Sichuan peppercorns from San Francisco (what you can get around here is a little on the stale side). And after all beer is great with spicy tofu and Fish Fragrant eggplants eked out from the sunset of my garden's life (I hope!).

So here ends the rambling story of myself. Onwards to food and drink!

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Looking forward to this, as with all blogs! :smile:

What better way to begin than with mapo tofu and fish fragrant eggplant...WITH beer, of course!

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Anxious to follow along. You sound like a very thoughtful and grounded cook. Don't forget to let us see your kitchen!

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I'm looking forward to this! Thanks you in advance.

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Just got back from doing a bit of shopping and had lunch. We had a cheese plate and a salad, with Tom Collinses on the side made with Hayman's Old Tom.

The cheese plate

cheese.JPG

Starting clockwise: Baguette from Batch Bakery, hands down the best bread in town, and the only one I'll buy if I don't have any homemade around; Hook's Tilston Point (Stilton style), Rothkase's Moody Blue (a smoked blue), Bleu Mont Dairy's Bandaged cheddar, and Hook's 5yr cheddar. Hook's is perhaps the cheesemaker with the most name recognition here, and they make incredibly solid versions of cheeses (they have a Roquefort clone, the Stilton clone, etc) and they make what may be the best "orange cheddar" around, dry and crumbly pleasantly studded with lactic acid crystals. Their 12yr cheddar is definitely something to try but very expensive. The Tilston point is a very good version of Stilton, while the Moody Blue is one of our house favorites: the light smoke plays perfectly with the creamy blue. The Bandaged cheddar is very unique: wrapped in bandages and aged in a cave in Blue Mounds, WI, it has a matte texture, which at room temp is good for dragging against the roof of your mouth to feel the cheese's fine grained creaminess. Willi, the cheesemaker, told me that he was inspired to make the cheese after taking a trip to Scotland and becoming convinced that he needed a cheese cave of his own in WI.

The salad

salad pic.JPG

Just a simple salad. The greens are from Harmony Valley. I love their greens this time of year, because they have more mustard greens than any other season. Otherwise its olives, tomatoes from the garden (they're green, can't remember the variety), shallot, roasted red peppers from a jar that we really like, and a peperoncino on top.

The table

salad and cheese pic 1.JPG

Perhaps not the best lighting for pictures, but it was just right for eating lunch.

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ohhh.... that cheese plate is calling my name. i've been lucky to have some of the Hook cheeses and they are wonderful...like the old rat cheese of my childhood. do you have any apples coming in that you can pair with your cheeses?

and please, sir... some walleye?!! it is still the first thing i get when i get up around a freshwater lake of any size and i haven't had any since a year and a half ago.........

how do you like the Hayman's?

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ohhh.... that cheese plate is calling my name. i've been lucky to have some of the Hook cheeses and they are wonderful...like the old rat cheese of my childhood. do you have any apples coming in that you can pair with your cheeses?

and please, sir... some walleye?!! it is still the first thing i get when i get up around a freshwater lake of any size and i haven't had any since a year and a half ago.........

how do you like the Hayman's?

I like the Hayman's, it's sweetly aromatic, just what I think an Old Tom should be. I was using Ransom, which is a very different style with a little age on it and a sharpness of cardamom, but I found it difficult to find drinks where I really wanted to use it. It's good, I just never really wanted to pour it. Any suggestions?

And as for Walleye, I'm planning on going to a fish fry on Friday, and if not I'll find some other way of fitting it in.

As for apples, Honey Crisps are all over the place around here now. They're not my favorite apple (I like a touch more acidity) but they are still very good (sweet and crisp-the name's not false advertising). My teaser pic had a cheese plate with some sliced Honey Crisp on it.

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Any suggestions?

can you get Tuthilltown? I like their baby bourbon though you may not be able to get it out near you.

edited to add:

sorry i missed the picture and thank you for the walleye


Edited by suzilightning (log)

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I should explain this teaser pic a bit more:

braunschweiger and beer for egullet.JPG

While that looks like summer sausage as some suggested, which is another favorite meat in tube form around here that you can get pretty much anywhere (there's a nice venison cherry summer sausage that I like too much to keep in the house), that tube is filled with Braunschweiger which is a liver pate like liverwurst that is smoked. This one comes from Willow Creek Farm, producers of fine Berkshire pork. I like their Braunschweiger: it's nicely smoked, their pork is always great, and many of their products are wellcrafted. I'll be picking up some pork from them next farmer's market (I'm hoping they come through with some fatback for me to make sausages with!).

A sandwich of crusty bread (the bread in this pic is homemade, I'm going to make some tomorrow), raw onion, coarse mustard, and a generous chunk of braunschweiger is tough to beat. Pairs well with strong bear.

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Any suggestions?

can you get Tuthilltown? I like their baby bourbon though you may not be able to get it out near you.

I can get Tuthilltown. It's amazing what you can get if you ask. Over the years here I've insinuated myself into the booze market around here: a good friend of mine owns a liquor store (the Cork 'n Bottle) and is very enthusiastic about bringing really good products in. We couldn't get Laird's bonded, for instance, and after a good deal of agitation, we've got it. Same with Rittenhouse BIB (though we've had to start agitating again...)

I also have been helping out with the wine tastings there every Saturday for a couple of years so I've had the chance to drink a lot of wine. Access to good wine and booze is a good thing.

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....

A sandwich of crusty bread (the bread in this pic is homemade, I'm going to make some tomorrow), raw onion, coarse mustard, and a generous chunk of braunschweiger is tough to beat. Pairs well with strong bear.

Yup - doesn't get much better except............... oh that cheese plate. Love cheese! Will have to see if any of yours are available in Canada.

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Cocktails and cheese... my kind of stuff. I smiled when I saw the walleye request. That's one of the very few local fishes, the only one I can get in abundance on any given day. I forget sometimes that's not the case everywhere.

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I went to the Asian market I like in town, Midway. There are others that are larger than this small store, but this one has better produce and better products too. The only problem about it is that you have to spend some time looking for things if you don't already know where they are. It seems that only the owner of the store knows where things are, so if you can't find him, you have to spend some time. But pretty much everything is there.

This is near the entrance, with pickled turnips and other things in bins to the left that give way to Asian snacks and nuts.

Midway 1.JPG

I picked up some Pocky to give as prizes to some of my students: I sent them in teams through the UW library system on a competition scavenger hunt.

Some pics of the vegetable aisle.

Veg aisle.JPG

veg aisle 2.JPG

Sometimes it's best to go to the Hmong farmers that come to the farmer's markets; they have some things like bok choy and other kinds of greens. But Midway's got everybody beat if you're looking for long beans or gai lan or galangal. I bought some ginger, gai lan, and an eggplant to supplement what I got out of my garden.

Here's the Chinese, Japanese, and Thai sauce aisle.

sauce aisle.JPG

Meat section

meat aisle.JPG

And here's where you get your milk, cheddar cheese, century eggs, and grass jelly drink

dairy 1000 yr egg aisle.JPG

Certainly not the best market, but it does the trick. There's a lot more in there than you might think (frozen beef bile anyone?...).

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Also, note the summer sausage and brats at the top of this pic.

meat aisle.JPG

You really can get it anywhere.

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I was using Ransom, which is a very different style with a little age on it and a sharpness of cardamom, but I found it difficult to find drinks where I really wanted to use it. It's good, I just never really wanted to pour it. Any suggestions?

Try the 'Variation on a Theme' from the Beta Cocktails blog. It's good with both Hayman's & Ransom, but I prefer the latter.


Edited by KD1191 (log)

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I was using Ransom, which is a very different style with a little age on it and a sharpness of cardamom, but I found it difficult to find drinks where I really wanted to use it. It's good, I just never really wanted to pour it. Any suggestions?

Try the 'Variation on a Theme' from the Beta Cocktails blog. It's good with both Hayman's & Ransom, but I prefer the latter.

I've done that with Hayman's. It's a great drink and I'll definitely put the Ransom version on the to-drink list thanks.

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The Asian market looks pretty well stocked. Those Japanese drinks on the top shelf with the marble at the top as a seal were always a special treat for the kids. Gotta love the brats alongside the more traditional ingredients. Thus true uncontrived "fusion" is born.

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I made Ma Po Tofu tonight with Fish Fragrant Eggplant, some gai lan with ginger, and rice. I've loved mapo tofu since I first made it, and I've worked on the recipe ever since. I use Fuschia Dunlop's recipe with a few tweaks; sometimes I use leeks, sometimes I throw Chinese chives in depending on what's fresh, and I always marinate the pork in xiao xing wine, white pepper, light soy sauce, and sesame oil. The sauce is simply chicken stock, with some sugar, corn starch, and soy sauce, which marries with the garlic, black beans, and chili bean sauce to make the dish.

Here it is in the wok:

mapo in process.JPG

It's important at this point to be very gentle if you're using silken tofu. I always do, because the real beauty part of this dish is the contrast of the crumbly meat with the squishy tofu. Plus I love to press the tofu up against the roof of my mouth. But if you're making this dish with the silken tofu and you stir too hard here, it will break into a thousand fragments and the contrast of the gelatinous chunks and the small grained meat will be lost forever (or until you make it again).

I'm not questing after the elusive wok hei in my house, but I love woks. They are very easy to handle large portions of things, not to mention the fact that the design of it makes for a variety of heat zones.

Here it is on the table, finished with ground Sichuan peppercorn and scallion:

mapo on the table.JPG

Here is the Fish Fragrant Eggplant:

ff.JPG

For those who have never had it, it doesn't involve fish at all. From what I remember, the sauce is often used with fish hence the name. My major departure from tradition here is that I don't deepfry the eggplant. I steam it because it's easier, and while it is less delicious I still think it's good and saves me some calories and heaviness. Otherwise its a standard sauce of Chinkiang vinegar, stock, some sugar, and soy sauce with ginger and garlic as the aromatics and chili bean sauce for heat and depth of flavor.

We had some greens too, Gai Lan with ginger juice (grate some ginger and squeeze the juice out of it-it's amazing how much you get), soy sauce, and a light touch of sesame oil:

gai lan.JPG

And beer to drink alongside:

beer.JPG

It's Hopalicious, an American Pale Ale from Ale Asylum, a Madison brewery that opened up a few years back. I didn't like this beer much when it first came out, it seemed overly malty to the point of being musty and the hops were not prominent which I thought was strange for a beer with such a name. This summer though, I ended up drinking a decent amount of it and liking it. I don't know if the more recent bottlings are better or more to my taste, but I've been warming up to it. Or maybe I've just stopped comparing it to my all time favorite beer, Bell's Two Hearted ale, against which almost any beer pales in comparison. In any case, Hopalicious may not be great, but it's very good and I like Ale Asylum a lot in general. They're always solid.

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I have several lingering slender eggplants on the vine so I will be cloning your dish. There was a big trend about steaming eggplant somewhere that I never jumped on so this will be by "jump". I like the idea of using the silken tofu for contrast. I have always used really firm but fresh Vietnamese tofu that is almost chewy. Live and learn and experiment - the "joy of cooking".

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I fell in love with MadTown when we went up there for a college suss-out with our daughter. Berkeley or Ann Arbor in Wisconsin, but with that Wisconsin whiff of fresh air and great food. (We liked Iowa City on that tour, but it didn't have the feel that old school progressive parents like us sniffed in Madison.)

I've known better for many years to think of Wisconsin of the land of cheese curds and fish fries -- not that there's anything the matter with them. I swear, if those folks in, say, Palo Alto, knew how Madison was gaming them about food, they'd be shocked. Shocked!

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I fell in love with MadTown when we went up there for a college suss-out with our daughter. Berkeley or Ann Arbor in Wisconsin, but with that Wisconsin whiff of fresh air and great food. (We liked Iowa City on that tour, but it didn't have the feel that old school progressive parents like us sniffed in Madison.)

I've known better for many years to think of Wisconsin of the land of cheese curds and fish fries -- not that there's anything the matter with them. I swear, if those folks in, say, Palo Alto, knew how Madison was gaming them about food, they'd be shocked. Shocked!

Hahaha it's definitely more than curds and fish fries these days, though I eat them too. Fried cheese curds, when made well and served fresh out of the fryer are like nothing else.

But as for variety in food, I was surprised to see not the first, but the third Himalayan restaurant open up last year. To differentiate themselves from the other two, this one specializes in all things yak meat. I've never been, but it's been open long enough that it seems to be good enough to survive.

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I have several lingering slender eggplants on the vine so I will be cloning your dish. There was a big trend about steaming eggplant somewhere that I never jumped on so this will be by "jump". I like the idea of using the silken tofu for contrast. I have always used really firm but fresh Vietnamese tofu that is almost chewy. Live and learn and experiment - the "joy of cooking".

The silken tofu really makes it for me. The way it bursts in your mouth and its unique flavor. I don't know if silken tofu tastes stronger than other kinds of tofu, or the super soft texture allows for more surface area to hit your tastebuds so it delivers the flavor to the mouth in a bolder way, but there's something to the way it tastes that I really love and don't get out of firmer tofus.

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Hi Alcuin, great blog so far!

It seems that food texture is important to you (as it should be, IMO) so can I ask what your favourite texture combinations are? Any dishes that you really feel have a sublime texture or texture contrast to them?

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