Thursday, November 30, 2006


Last night, a bunch of us sat around a table describing to an outsider what it was like to live in Madison. Said outsider was contemplating a move to the area.

Sure, it’s cold, but really, it’s quite sunny! And autumn is wonderful! And you don’t feel the cold when it dips below minus 20. It just feels like regular old 25. And we clean our streets of snow and the schools stay open and our heating bills are reasonable. Given the circumstances.

In good company, this seems entirely credible. Back home, in my own space, I realize it is a stretch. It can get ridiculously cold here.

Still, what has become apparent is that when an outsider visits, the first topic to reach the table is Madison's weather. Carved, dissected, dressed and delivered.

I remembered this as the thermometer did an about face this morning and plummeted from somewhere in mid-fifties to a nice brisk 15 – topping 19 when I set out for the Law School. I pretty much jogged the mile, but my hair never quite recovered. It does not like it when I choose to go from shower to freezer.

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night falls, snow falls

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

more of the same

Only today, the weather turned worse.

Maybe wheedling out a smile...

november 06 348 the course of a walk through icy windy wetness is a so-what kind of thing in your book. In mine, it is (was) delightful. Work, then this. My day. (Though by dinner time, the tides shifted and a warm inner glow returned. But that’s another story.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

effort appreciated

I walk home past blocks of student housing. The landlords have not cared to do anything aesthetically pleasing to these houses for years. Their entire effort is placed in writing out notices of rent increases.

Toward the end of November these blocks look sad. And so I especially appreciate it when a resident takes it upon her (him?) self to try to make it a better, brighter place.

I mean, it’s not quite Michigan Avenue, Chicago, in the holiday season, but it is one person’s effort to make this dismal landscape a place of color and joy.


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Monday, November 27, 2006

the art of reality

There is the reality of the last week of November. Wet, dark, and inching forward with the burden of excessive work demands.

Most of my non-teaching hours were spent at my home desk, looking out at this:

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A significant leap from the bright exuberance of Chicago holiday lights. Still, you could get into the dispiritedness of it all, in a Hopper kind of way, no? I should have placed an empty martini glass on the desk to complete the image. The Ocean reader would have to guess if it was empty the whole evening long…

Sunday, November 26, 2006

molecular gastronomy and me

Long ago, it was foreordained that on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I would eat at Alinea.

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Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle, butter

Alinea is not just another excellent restaurant. Alinea is unalike anything else. And, by all accounts, superb. Ruth Reichl gave it more than a thumbs up. This year she proclaimed it to be the best eating establishment in America.

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King crab, vinegar, aromatics, rice

I hesitate to even call Alinea a restaurant. There isn’t a conventional menu. You call, ask for a table years in advance and commit yourself to either one dozen or two dozen works of artistic degustation. (And, if you want to avoid a free ride to debtors’ prison, you stay hushed and quiet when someone else meekly offers to pick up the check.)

I chose two dozen.

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Trout roe, cucumber, coconut, bonito

No one doubts Alinea constructs miniature masterpieces. But this is not what places it apart from virtually any eatery in the world. Alinea minutely zeroes in on the physiochemical aspects of food and creates sensations that are carefully engineered to excite, even astonish the palate.

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Medai, radish, coriander, poppyseed

Molecular gastronomy: working with the temperature, texture and physical structure of food, with instruments and utensils designed especially to lend support to the Chef’s imagination.

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Matsutake, mango, peanut, yuzu rind

From the NYT Magazine (8.27.06):

With solid sauces, Achatz [Chef and owner] explains, “flavor release” is key. Jellies are essentially flavor elements suspended in a neutral medium. Bound in their carrier matrix, the flavor molecules are relatively inaccessible to the taste buds, so the jelly is first experienced primarily as texture. At a certain temperature, different for each agent, the molecular mesh relaxes and the flavor is released. With gelatin, this occurs at body temperature; in Achatz’s Mussel Cream with Mint and Chamomile Jelly, the herbal flavor blooms in the mouth as the gelatin melts.

Jellies, frozen encasements, clouds of froth, spicy grains, solids, liquids, even smoke. Nothing in the listing of ingredients prepares you for the presentation.

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Rabbit, cider, roasted garlic, smell of burning leaves

Achatz is terribly young to be doing such innovation. Or maybe not, considering that he was prepping and plating foods in his dad’s straightforward restaurant in Michigan since he was twelve. And doing a better job of it than the hired cooks, according to the dad.

Not satisfied with the ordinariness of cooking in most every restaurant, Achatz left Michigan, studied at the Culinary Institute and came back (via the French Laundry) to Chicago. Since then, he has been soaring to heretofore undisclosed culinary spaces. Without pause, without time off.

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Carrot, smoked paprika, orange

From Food & Wine:

Once, before a holiday break [from the Culinary Institute], he called home and asked his mom to track down emu so he could cook it for a party. As his mother, Barb Strachan, recalls, "That’s when we knew he wasn’t going to do regular food."

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Kobe short rib, beets, cranberry, campari

Deconstructed food. It would appeal to a writer, no? Even one who appears ever so slightly to be stuck on conventional processes. The challenge of seeing something differently. Alineaa typographical sign formerly used in printed texts. It indicated the beginning of a new train of thought, a new paragraph.

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White truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan

We enter through an unmarked door. No sign of a restaurant thus far. A tunnel-like, geometric space. A heavy door opens to the side and the silent corridor is suddenly a thing of the past. We are surrounded by a smiling, welcoming staff and, immediately to our right, the open entrance to the kitchen.

I hand over my coat, but my eyes are on the kitchen. Salt and pepper figures, some in white and black, some in black, moving deftly between stations. But are there even stations? The surfaces heat, freeze, dehydrate, rehydrate. Unlike in the land of Oz, you are introduced to the magic behind the curtain from the moment you step inside.

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Squab, huckleberry, sorrel, long peppercorn

We sit down at a dark wood table. Rosemary sprigs to the side, a cloth napkin with the mark of an alinea.

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Foie gras, spicy cinnamon, apple pate de fruit

And the presentations begin. Wines are paired with dishes (although you could order them by the bottle or not at all if that is your wish). Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Barolo, Soave, Black Noble…

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Concord grape, frozen and chewy

Careful construction. Some morsels float above the plate, others swim out from beneath glassware. But there is no gimmickry. As you savor, you understand the intent. It makes sense. Sensual, all senses engaged.

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Chestnut, Blis maple syrup

Excuse me, are you a photojournalist?
No, not exactly... Is this your first time here?
Yes. We are celebrating our 11th anniversary.
Food and marriage, partnership in eating. Engaged, tickled, amused, satisfied.

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Persimmon, brioche, mace grapefruit

Our headwaiter is, by birth, from Bulgaria.
The Chef works all the time! Since I have known him, maybe he has not been in the kitchen once? Twice?

The long hours of Alinea. We come at 9:30 and leave after 1:30. And we are not the last to leave.

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Quince, prosciutto, orange, juniper

Perfectionism. I strive for it in a few places I fall off on others. At Alinea, it is a necessity. For without it, the dish tumbles and fails. Precision. All for the sake of a blissful harmony of flavors.

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Shellfish, gooseberries, horseradish, celery ice

Do you allow children here? I ask. At this hour of course there are no children.
We do not set rules about this. But the experience is lost on them. Still, we had someone come with a baby. The baby cried, the other diners were upset. They are spending a lot of money to eat here. The meal is long – this is a tough place to bring a young child to. But we leave it to the parent.

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Hamachi, buttermilk, blackberry, green peanuts

You asked us about dietary restrictions. We have none. What if we did?
The chef accommodates them. We recently had a vegan – virtually every dish had to be modified. We did it. The woman went away so happy. She had not eaten this well in years! The chef saw it as a challenge. And really, everyone should walk away satisfied.

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Pineapple, bacon powder, black pepper

Several of us had researched each ingredient so that we would not have to ask.
Mastic: an evergreen shrub from the Mediterranean region; resin from it is used in liquors and as a spice…

The waiters place the springs of rosemary into a hot slate. The dish has no rosemary in it, but the aroma from the heated needles floats over the bit of meat, creating the sensation of flavor.

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Lamb, date, mastic, rosemary aroma

Uncommon couplings follow.

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Venison encased in savory granola

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Raspberry, goat milk, red pepper taffy, pistachio

And the presentations continue to take the breath away. Instructions are often needed.
You can eat the leaves wrapped around the piece of cake, but they may be a bit rough. Try blending bits of cake with the accompaniments.

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Licorice cake, spiced with hoja santa leaves

At this point, the digestive track sends me messages: I am near capacity, mine warns me.
Has anyone ever complained of not enough food in this place?
Actually, yes. We had a table – they had read we were good but they did not know about our style of preparing foods. Maybe they thought there wasn’t enough meat, of the steak type. Conversely, we have had people get up and say – we cannot eat any more. And we cannot send doggie bags home.

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Chocolate, bergamot, cassia, figs

We can barely finish. Comfortable clothing, I tell you. One has to wear comfortable clothing. Nothing should distract. You have paid, someone has paid, a virtual airfare to get you to dine here. You are on a culinary island. It is a vacation from the ordinary.

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Caramel, meyer lemon, cinnamon perfume

I have no critical comments to offer. Chef Achatz has envisioned something so sensual, so intense that I am left speechless.

To do something that well in whatever field boggles the mind. And in the kitchen, where I know enough to smell culinary genius, I am ready to describe it as such when I encounter it. Sure, it can be in the home kitchen of someone fastidiously rolling out the perfect pierogi dough. Or it can be at Alinea. It is at Alinea. My hat is off, totally, completely.

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in the wee hours of the night, conferring

Saturday, November 25, 2006

post thanksgiving post

Home foods, comfort foods, sitting around a table, Sunday lunch, Thanksgiving dinner, meals as conduits, playful, untroubled, the happy sweat of working a hot oven, the proud burn marks that tell of reaching into fierce heat and pulling out something that makes people feel good.

And then it’s over.

So how fortuitous that the next big eating event is preceded by a period of lights.

The purists will be sure to let me know that a moonlit snow-covered field will out-shine any commercial overuse of electricity on a city street. The purists talk in fictional terms. I haven’t seen a snow-covered field in a long time and especially not in late November or December. Snow is a thing of the past. Chicago hit 60 yesterday. Gray trees, brown lawns, warm-ish temps. Bleak.

Downtown, though, was hopping. Predictably. Anything but bleak.

The city does change, sometimes in unfortunate ways…

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But on a Friday after Thanksgiving, you can count on the bright lights. Inside and out, in tones of hot fire, like the oven you turned off after the Thanksgiving meal.

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And after, when you have been shined and twinkled on to the utmost, there’s a half-pint of Belgian gold waiting for you. Not bad, this end-of-November time.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Thanksgiving, part 4: food crazy

America is a nation of closet foodies. Ask anyone out on the street and so many will tell you Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday because it’s all about eating yummy stuff all late-afternoon long. We pick our favorite holiday by what it delivers to our stomachs, how about that!

My turkey didn’t grace the table until after 9.

I take on Thanksgiving cooking in the way that one takes on a massive housecleanig project: ambitiously, with sleeves rolled up (actually I prefer cooking in an undershirt) and with a lot of components mapped out for the day. Grit and determination. Especially if I am cooking the entire meal in someone else’s kitchen. Without many props.

I start Wednesday evening and cook straight through until we sit down, whenever that may be, the next day sometime, with a few hours out for a little sleep and a brief walk, just to get that housebound feeling out of me.

So, let me randomly throw out a few dishes of the day (we counted fifteen). Broken up by a walk.

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apple puffies

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squash with dumplings

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chive scones

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Lake Michigan at Evanston

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snack food

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chipotle corn

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caramelized endive

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with roasted garlic and herbs

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the bird

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chocolate with raspberries

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving, part 3: why the skip?

Why no post on this day? You'll have to read about it tomorrow. I haven't an ounce of energy left now.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgivng, part 2: for the beauty of each hour of the day

Both my daughters are tremendous singers. No, really. They are superb. Oh, they have the vocabulary of today’s music. But when I listen to them play around with phrases of songs that are more traditional, songs that were part of their (my?) youth, for years on end – I dissolve.

I’m not in Wisconsin right now. Thanksgiving, en famille, is south of the state border. Much to be written and considered and photographed, but it all has to be put aside. Cooking (and music) come(s) first.

Here, let me post this still life of an alive moment. (It’s part of tomorrow’s dinner.)

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Thanksgiving, part 1

I have known Matt, over at Blue Valley Gardens, since my buying days at L’Etoile Restaurant several years back. Matt’s asparagus is legendary. If you’re from around here and you like fresh and honest, you’re at his stand at the market stocking up on the green (and white) stalks in the spring. It’s a given.

Matt also grows berries in the summer and spinach in the winter and, more importantly, he raises turkeys. Good turkeys.

I bought one from him this year (I am not alone – he sold some 200 for Thanksgiving meals around the county) and on Monday, I drove out to his farm to pick it up.

No, no, not by the neck, out of a flock of gobbling birds. Mine was out in the shed, in a box and ready to go. But I am of the opinion that those of us who do eat meat should treat it as something that comes from a farm, not from a freezer section of a supermarket. And, we should care about what happens to that turkey down there on the farm, before it reaches the store shelf or your table.

So, there I am, out at Matt’s farm, admiring the winter greens...

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And the half-out-of-it bees (that still manage to get tangled in Matt’s pony tail)

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And they’re all swell, but what I want to admire most are the turkeys.

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And they are beautiful.
So I ask – am I going to be eating one of those?
No, no
– he tells me. Yours is closer in kind to this one:

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So the others, what are they for?
Oh, just as pets. They’re really neat, not at all dumb. And here, see what I can get them to do?
[Matt shows how he can lull a turkey to sleep]

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Turkey time, coming up. May all yours be as well cared for as Matt’s are.

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Driving back, I’m remembering the conversation with my Yorkshire colleague. I note to her – your grass is still green, isn’t it?
Green? Yes, of course.
It’s green year-round?
Absolutely. Yours isn’t? What color is it then?

Well, it turns brown. But on days like this, it is a beautiful brown.

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