Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jan 21, 2014
11:29 AMSmall Dishes
My Top 50 Favorite Foods (Part I)
Anytime I start thinking about food, whether it was something I ate in the past or want to eat in the future, things can quickly get out of hand. I started out trying to make a list of my top ten favorite foods, but thought, “How can I limit it to just ten?" So now I’m up to fifty (and promise to stop there), but that means I’ll have to publish the list in two parts (I don’t want to crash the server). The order is as random as my thought process. I don’t anticipate undertaking this project ever again, but if I did, I wouldn’t be surprised if the list changed. Taste is indeed fickle.
Barbecued pulled pork. Barbecue covers a lot of sins. The word is used both as a verb and noun with more than one meaning. If you’re a southern practitioner, it’s all about pork slowly smoked in a pit over hickory or oak. Pulled pork is most often made from a fatty cut, the shoulder (front leg of the hog). The meat is cooked until black on the outside and it literally falls apart. My condiment of choice is the vinegar-style sauce associated with North Carolina, but don’t mind a topping of coleslaw like they do in Memphis. That BBQ Joint turns out pulled pork in the best southern tradition with a choice of two homemade sauces, including unusual for around here, a South Carolina-style mustard sauce.
Blue Cheese Dressing. I’ve often been accused of being pretentious (I prefer the word “discriminating”). If that were indeed true, I wouldn’t mention that I actually like blue cheese dressing! No decent foodie (and I despise that word) would admit that he or she actually likes the globby stuff—that even worse—is inevitably spooned over head lettuce! For me, I remember it as the first adult food I learned to like—obviously, blue cheese is an acquired taste. I still enjoy it on occasion and sometimes it is the only salvation of a salad mostly of iceberg lettuce with a sprinkle of shredded carrots and a cherry tomato for garnish.
Brussels sprouts. For a long time I never gave them a second thought. My mother taught me that frozen Brussels sprouts have no redeeming value. The game changer was roasting them. A little olive oil, coarse salt and black pepper are the only other ingredients needed. They’re a perennial winter treat. I would eat them even if they weren’t good for me.
Chili. Its roots no doubt are with Mexican-Americans living in Texas, certainly not Mexico. During the Depression, the whole country embraced the dish, ending up with many regional interpretations of the recipe. Chopped meat, ground meat, bean or no beans, I love them all. The only chili I ever had that I didn't like came out of a can. It truly amazes me how much this one dish has inspired so many to see the ultimate rendition. I've certainly enjoyed the search myself. I’ve also always enjoyed KW’s Texas Chili at Eldorado Grill, chucks of tender meat in complex chili-infused stock.
Chocolate chip cookies. Most people by now know their advent was a serendipitous accident by a lazy cook. Ruth Wakefield intended to make chocolate cookies, but rather than adding melted chocolate as the recipe demanded, chopped it up instead, expecting it to melt during baking. It’s one of the view times I know of where cutting corners in cooking actually paid off. I like all kinds of chocolate chip cookies, with or without nuts, the bigger the better. My least favorite, however, are the cakey kind: A chocolate chip cookie should be either crisp or chewy. The ones at Batch Bakehouse are first-class and I’ve heard there is even a bacon variation, though I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Collard greens. It wasn’t that long ago that there seemed to be only one grocery in town that carried them. With the globalization of food, they’ve become readily available just like most everything else. I often get funny looks when I buy them. Not because I’m buying collard greens, but the sheer quantity in my cart. Greens really cook down to almost nothing prepared the southern way—slowly stewed in their own juices with salt pork or ham hocks and seasoning. I agree, most green vegetables—spinach included—should be quickly cooked. Collard, mustard and turnip greens are an exception. If you’ve never tried them, a barbecue place is usually the best bet as they’re considered a prerequisite side dish for most Q devotees.
Crab cakes. My mother made croquets—mostly tuna and salmon—and I dreaded them. The fact that she wouldn’t eat them—because they contained fish—speaks for itself. But, oh what a difference crab makes—yes, crab cakes are nothing more than croquets. Where they usually go amock is when they have too many ingredients, are handled too much, or deep fried. For a while, they were a hot menu item all over town, but not so much anymore. They’re still a star at the Wonder Bar, served with remoulade sauce and a sweet red pepper coulis.
Crème brûlée. The first time I encountered this now commonplace dessert was in London. The combination of smooth, creamy custard with crunchy, caramelized sugar is truly brilliant. Despite its French name its origins are in Great Britain—“crème brûlée” sounds so much more appealing than its translation “burnt cream.” It didn’t take long before I saw it popping up on menus everywhere…too many menus. Nonetheless, I still appreciate it. An imaginative and successful variation is the green tea crème brûlée at Umani.
Guacamole. When it first appeared on my plate at a Mexican restaurant in California, I’m not sure I would have eaten it if I’d known what it was. My grandmother use to bring back gigantic, smooth-skinned avocados from Florida. The only thing she ever did with them was make a salad finished with Kraft Miracle French Dressing. It was awful. Despite being a questionable green color, I fortunately took the plunge and have happily been dipping and spreading it ever since. I prefer my guac more chopped than pureed and opt out on cilantro. (I’m not a cilantro hater, I just find it can be overbearing in guacamole.) But in fact, it’s really hard to screw up guacamole and I’ve been known to buy the packaged stuff sold refrigerated.
Gumbo. My first foray at food writing was a letter to the editor in response to an article that appeared locally about gumbo in which the author stated that proper gumbo must contain okra. It does not, but what all of the many varieties do have in common is roux: flour browned in hot fat. Depending on the other ingredients, the color of the roux will vary from that of peanut butter to chocolate. It not only thickens the soup but give it a distinctive taste. Another gumbo correctness is that it is served over steamed rice, not mixed in with it. That said, my best option for finding a good bowl of gumbo has been to make it myself. However, though I haven’t tired it, I have my eye on Double S BBQ’s Saturday special: Cajun chicken and sausage gumbo. (If it’s half as good as the buttermilk pie there, it’s fantastic!)
Hamburgers. Burgers have to rank up there—at least with American carnivores—as the most popular dish. I like my burgers, big, thick and grilled over charcoal. The perfect combination of beef is about sixty percent beef chuck and forty percent brisket. I like them served on King’s Hawaiian sandwich rolls with pickle and mayonnaise. That said, it’s hard not to like most burgers. Dining out, there are numerous burgers worthy of leaving home for. Being someone with a fascination for food history, it’s no surprise I will single out Dotty Dumplings Dowry.
Hasselback potatoes. I’ve always liked twice-baked potatoes. Occasionally, I find them on a restaurant’s menu and inevitably order them only to find that they have a poor texture and stale taste. Recently I discovered another variation on the baked potato that is now my favorite. Hasselback potatoes are the specialty of a Hasselbacken Hotel in Stockholm. The potato is vertically cut into very thin slices without cutting all the way through so it resembles an accordion. All kinds of things—slices of cheese, garlic and bacon—can be stuffed in between the slices. The potato is drizzled with olive oil or butter and maybe more cheese before baking. The finished product is quite spectacular and combines the best attributes of both roasted and twice baked potatoes. I’d love to see more of them around here.
Heirloom tomatoes. I actually like most any tomato as long as it is home grown. Unfortunately, the season in Wisconsin is late and brief. I understand why many of my friends are tomato haters. They grew up eating bad, supermarket tomatoes. Depending upon the weather, native ones can be almost as disappointing. Heirloom (non-hybrid) tomatoes changed all that. At first they were difficult to find, but not so much anymore. And even those from afar have more taste than their completion in the produce section.
Lobster rolls. My first taste was bittersweet. I had never tasted a sandwich so exquisite and knew I wouldn’t be having another one anytime soon after I returned home to the Midwest. I love any kind of shellfish, but cold water lobster has always reigned supreme. The secret to the perfect lobster roll is big chunks of lobster, including the sweet claw meat. Too much melted butter will ruin a warm lobster rolls; likewise too much mayo in a cold lobster (salad) roll. Both are better on a toasted bun. The farther away from the Atlantic Shore, the more likely the lobster roll will disappoint.
Mac 'n' cheese. Like most people I liked it as a kid and never outgrew my taste for it. As an adult, however, I now prefer the baked variety made with sharp cheese and crispy crumbs on top to the creamy kind that comes out of a blue box. I don’t have a favorite recipe, but an ever-increasing number to try. I believe that The Old Fashioned makes exemplary macaroni with cheese.
Pad Thai. This mainstay at Southeastern Asian restaurants combines some incongruous if not what some would consider unappetizing ingredients: rice noodles, tofu, fish sauce, and cilantro. That said, it’s hard to resist. Another confession: I have never made pad Thai. It remains one of those things I can still enjoy out. Even though some might judge it as inauthentic since it’s an Indonesian adaption, I’m most fond of the pad Thai at Bandung (not to mention that it’s a short walk from my house).
Pie. I like any kind of pie and never tire of it. Too often it’s all about the filling and what would otherwise be delicious is spoiled by tough or soggy pastry—it should be tender and flaky. (I won’t touch a pie when the crust was obviously crimped by a machine!) I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to make pie pastry and it’s been worth it. I like pies with crumb crusts, too, just not as much. I’m the first to admit my vanity often gets in the way of my enjoyment of pies baked by others, but I will grudgingly admit that 4&20 Bakery and Cafe is very good for store bought.
Pimento cheese. This is strictly a southern thing, so if you haven’t resided below the Mason-Dixon Line, you probably won’t know what I’m talking about—“The Pâté of the South.” It’s an innocent combination of cheese, mayo and pimentos. However, a debate rages over exactly what type or combination of cheese to use—yellow cheese for sure must be included in the mix. Many hold a deep conviction that it can only be successfully executed using Duke’s mayonnaise, a brand made in Virginia and only sold in the South. Traditionally, it was the filling for a very humble sandwich made with white bread, or as a simple spread for saltines. Today, sandwiches are often grilled, or the cheese spread baked and used as a dip for chips. I’ve even encountered pimento cheese inside egg rolls. Down South it is made at home, but more often than not, just picked up at the supermarket, either prepackaged or in the deli. My favorite brand is Mrs. Grissom’s from Nashville, Tennessee. When I’ve spotted it locally, inevitably it turned out to be atrocious (recipe follows).
Pork tenderloin sandwiches. For the most part, this is strictly an Indiana specialty: slices of pork tenderloin pounded paper thin, breaded, deep fried, and served on a bun with pickle and yellow mustard. They’re so popular there that they’ve shown up on the McDonald’s menu. Since they’re fried, I haven’t a clue why their acceptance hasn’t spread.
Potato chips. I’ve always liked them and still like them better than tortilla chips. The first time I came across kettle chips was on a trip to Cape Cod. Like so many other things, they have lost some of their luster now that Cape Cod Potato Chips are available most everywhere. Scarcity no doubt is why I now rate Kitch’n Cook’d Maui Potato Chips number one. Normally, I’m not a big fan of flavored chips, but an exception are Zapp’s, made near New Orleans. Its repertoire includes Spicy Cajun Crawtators, Hotter ‘n’ Hot Jalapeno, Voodoo, and Who Dat? Bet you can’t eat just one: Bonfyre’s house-made potato chips topped with a Maytag blue cheese sauce and chives.
Rib Roast with Yorkshire pudding. I’ve always liked prime rib and certainly have eaten a lot of it in Wisconsin supper clubs. The Yorkshire pudding part came later, something I first encountered in England where it was bound to come with the roast whether you wanted it or not. Gloriously puffy and brown, it’s not only attractive but just perfect for sopping up all the juices from the meat. As we’re all aware, there is no shortage of restaurants around town that serve rib roast, but at Tornado Steakhouse, a side of Yorkshire pudding is highly recommended.
Strawberry shortcake. I love all berries, but strawberries have always been special. Even though you can now buy them fresh every day of the year, for me they remain a seasonal treat. I start taking home the ones from California and Florida around late February and patiently wait for the best ones—locally grown—in June. I have learned that bigger is not better when it comes to strawberries. I prefer the smaller varieties that are as red on the inside as they are on the outside. Truth be told, I make lots of desserts out of strawberries but none are more magnificent than a simple shortcake. Cake, pie crust and biscuits are all used for a base. A proper shortcake, however, is made from a rich biscuit dough—sometimes called cream biscuits. The shortcake should be assembled while the biscuits are still slightly warm from the oven. Don’t even think about desecrating it with Cool Whip.
Steak frites. I would say it’s the blue plate special at every bistro and brasserie. A small steak—in Europe using most often what is similar to our rib eye—is pan broiled and served with a red wine reduction and mounds of French fried potatoes. Prior to my first steak frites in Belgium, I was of the opinion that a steak had to be broiled. I was wrong. When I cook Saturday dinner for myself, my first choice is to make steak frites. At Brasserie V they use a flatiron steak in this classic combo and every bite takes be back to Brussels.
Tortellini. Back in 1969 when I first traveled to Italy, about the only pasta I was familiar with was long, dried and came in a box (excluding, of course, Franco-American spaghetti and Chef Boyardee ravioli that came in cans). I was fortunate that one of my traveling companions was Italian-American and introduced me to tortellini. No matter how these little dumplings are stuffed or sauced, I still find them magical and irresistible to this day.
Waffles. I loath pancakes but adore waffle even though they start out pretty much the same. While the former is heavy and soft, the latter is light and crisp—or should be if correctly made. I also like how all those many indentations trap the syrup. I’ve had good luck ordering waffles out (unlike French toast which can be worse than pancakes). I think Sardine has one of the best brunches in Madison and it includes Belgian waffles—either plain or buckwheat (both equally delicious)—served with real maple syrup (artificially flavored syrup wrecks anything).
RECIPE: Pimento Cheese
It can be used as a dip for crudités and crackers, or as a sandwich filling. I like it baked in a small casserole until just hot and served as a dip with Fritos.
8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
8 ounces grated sharp cheddar
8 ounces Colby
8 ounces Swiss cheese
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp Creole or other seasoning (I like Sylvia’s Soulful Seasoned Salt)
1/2 cup roughly diced pimentos
2 tsp grated onion
1/2 tsp dry mustard
Cracked black pepper to taste
A few drops of Tabasco
A few drops of Worcestershire
Using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until smooth and fluffy. Add all of the remaining ingredients and beat until well blended. Store covered in the refrigerator.
Makes 6 cups.