Foodie Tuesday: Fine Cafeteria Dining

Photo: Don't Get All Fancy on Me

Doesn’t get simpler than that. Dill pickles and olives, sweet tomatoes, apples, and roasted almond butter to spread on the apples or just eat by the spoonful. Voila! Lunch.

Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it: Fine Cafeteria Dining. Most of us, at least, associate the word Cafeteria, like Buffet, with awful school-served food and cheap dives that serve a facsimile of prison or, only marginally better, high school or farm animal, slop, perhaps with just a dollop more of stale grease and a whole mess o’ chaos added. Of course, we’ve all seen (I hope) exemplars that defy such mean images; my favorite in recent times was the cafeteria or buffet at the fabulous indoor/outdoor art museum Artipelag just outside Stockholm. If you can get there, go.

Even if you think you hate art and are bored by it, go. If you have any affinity with nature, the grounds are spectacular and wind with marvelous boardwalks and trails, and the main building is topped by a superb roof garden where much of the produce used ‘downstairs’ is grown. If you enjoy clever and serene modern architecture, the building that houses the cafeteria, a slightly more upscale cafe, and the art galleries is a delight, bathed in natural light, full of large glass walls that frame views as magnificent as any artwork, and clean-lined yet full of attention to detail, to the degree that the public restrooms are worth a visit on their own merit, feeling like magical caves and so peaceful you’ll want to install a bunk and just stay there. If you are attracted to art and design and craft, you’ll find both objects in the permanent collection and the changing exhibitions rich and highly characteristic of the wealth of brilliant visual influences Sweden, Scandinavia, and other centers of great art and design and craft (whose treasures are highlighted here) have had on world culture.

If you think you dislike all of that but are hungry, go anyhow. The cafeteria is stellar. Every dish, condiment, and drink is—unlike typical cafeteria or buffet food, beautifully made and dazzlingly fresh. It’s not fussy, but it’s full of the best sorts of traditional and contemporary flavors and textures and ingredients that rightly make Sweden and its chefs such stars of this era’s culinary scene. I hardly dared to look up Artipelag to put the link above for you, for fear of how homesick it makes me for Stockholm and how fearsomely hungry I get!

And it’s a reminder, in a more cheering sense, that I neither have to labor terribly hard nor be massively more skillful and clever in the kitchen than I am (not that either would be a bad thing) to produce something that can please hungry people, and each in his or her preferred way. All I have to do, really, is adopt and adapt the best parts of cafeteria food. I’ve talked about this before, but having more time and inclination to cook and prep meals at home in the last couple of weeks has brought this to the fore yet again. My simple cues: choose or make many small and simple things that go together reasonably well, and let the diners choose what parts they prefer and how they like to combine them or separate them. Cafeterias, for all of their myriad sins, may have gotten one thing more right than many high-end chefs and restaurants often do, in recognizing that divided food dishes can help lead to better portion control but, by coincidence, they also give succor to the huge number of people who like to keep the parts of their meals separate. I know it sounds a little infantile to people who enjoy the intermingling of foods with affinities or who think only kids have this preference, but I’d bet you a large chunk of change that there are far more “grownups” who like food better this way, too, than will necessarily admit to it in public.

Using a divided plate or a series of small dishes can serve several purposes beyond this purist drive, anyhow. If you want to be able to experience each item or preparation alone, to savor its unique merits, how better than to keep it isolated from wandering sauces or bits of other foods? If you like to mix things together to your own proportional likes, why not? If you like to keep crispy food crispy and let the slurpy food melt away, nothing makes it easier than physical separation.

Photo: Same Parts, Different Arrangement

Want a little more? Add some sugar snap peas, cantaloupe sprinkled with cardamom, and boiled eggs. Ready, set, dinner.

There are reasons we find tasting menus, tapas dinners, hors-d’oeuvres parties, and yes, even buffets appealing when they’re well done. The joy of discovering each small taste individually before deciding whether to let them join company anywhere besides in our innards is a privilege that is worth cultivating often. It lets everyone in the room play chef a bit. And it pretty much guarantees that no one will leave hungry. And isn’t that the point?

Foodie Tuesday: American Pizza Party

When company’s coming and it’s not supposed to be a fussy occasion, I’m not going to be one of those hosts slaving in the kitchen and trying to pretend perfection. I would much rather spend my energies on getting edible, uncomplicated food on the table and either being with the guests or, as was the case the other night, getting out of the way of my spouse’s dinner meeting so I could enjoy reading in peace while I ate my own dinner in the other room. The people in attendance at the dinner meeting could talk business and be casual and not concern themselves with etiquette or entertaining me—or I, them—and I could even relax a bit after fixing dinner.

Pizza, in the American style, is an easy choice on such occasions. This time around, I didn’t have any guests requiring any particular dietary care: no gluten-free needs, no vegans, no special religious occasions being observed, and so forth. I didn’t have any unusual worries about any formalities. Simplicity and ease of serving were a bigger deal than being distinguished or fancy in any way, and setting up so the meeting group could take care of their own food and drink once it was served was the obvious solution. Around here, that means being able to eat without utensils if we like, and helping ourselves when we want more. Pizza. Drinks. Fruit and vegetables already cut up and served cold, with a couple of dipping sauces in case anybody wants. Lots of paper towels or serviettes or cloth napkins, whatever’s available.

Did I mention pizza?Photo montage + text: Pizza Party

And while I could fiddle around and make homemade crust, I’m kind of too old and lazy for that anymore. Horrifying, I know. You can shun me. Or you can enjoy making your own pizza crust, or hey, just join in and buy store-bought dough and save yourself a little time. I won’t even judge you if you order delivered, ready-made pizza. I just got in the mood to do my own toppings this time. So that was the only fuss I made. I let the grocery store do all of the fruit and vegetable peeling and cutting and plating in those chintzy little plastic trays, and was quite content. The pre-made pizza dough bought from the refrigerated case at the store was good enough for me, and one of the guys at the meeting even asked me if I had made it, and I didn’t lie. Credit where it’s due.

For the veg, a dip made of blended cottage cheese and whole milk yogurt (equal parts or so) seasoned with dill, thyme, salt, and smoked paprika, and a pinch of cayenne. For the fruits, a sauce of caramel—brown sugar melted in butter, with a pinch of salt, and in place of the usual cream, more yogurt. And a big hit of good quality cinnamon, for this batch. Mixed nuts and individually wrapped candies and chocolates. Cold drinks. Good friends and colleagues, and big ideas floating all around. Satisfying sustenance.Photo: Pizza Buffet

Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

Foodie Tuesday: Keep Us Company

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Rice and wheat crackers with cheddar dip and salsa; carrots, jicama, olives, watermelon and lime wedges, to zip up any of it that’s in need.

Shared companions at their best help to strengthen individual relationships.

This is true of people, any great net of friends and acquaintances woven, knit and spun together making the two people at their center-most intersection better through their support. It’s true, too, of meals, where the cast of side dishes and sauces, condiments and accompaniments all work together to make the main dish better and more interesting than it would be on its own, and make a standard entrée a standout, distinctive and more memorable for the occasion.

Now, when these two instances of the supporting cast making the show coincide, things can be tons of fun. As on our latest anniversary, for example. We enjoy our twosome time immensely, and are glad to celebrate at any excuse, but we’re not sticklers for specific dates or rigorous traditions. So when our anniversary lined up with a rare opportunity to gather with a houseful of students, we merged our various celebratory plots into one plan.

Dinner for any more than four people is inevitably served buffet style when I’m in charge; besides my preference for informality, I like people to be able to sit at tables for ease of dining, and while I can make that happen for up to a couple dozen in our contiguous living, dining and kitchen spaces, it doesn’t leave much spare room for elbows, let alone heaps of serving dishes, on said tables. So it’s easier to concoct big-batch comestibles in big-batch pots and pans and let the guests scoop up platefuls of their own design at will.

This time, the centerpiece of the meal was my lazy version of carnitas, one of my pet make-ahead foods for carnivores, surrounded by a range of things that could keep the vegetarians, the allergic and the whatever-averse all reasonably well filled.

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The center of attention. Get those edges crispy!

Carnitas de Señora Loca

Take one big, fat-marbled haunch of a pork roast, cut it if/as needed to fit in the slow cooker, and tuck it in for a nice long soak, at least overnight and longer if possible. Its bath should be comfortably Tex-Mex in character: cumin, powdered garlic, chipotle powder or a canned chipotle en adobo, and, if you’re in the mood, some stick cinnamon, all to your taste; equal parts of Mexican [cane sugar] Coke–in my slow cooker, the measure is one individual bottle, orange juice, beer [I generally use either a Mexican beer like Modelo or Corona, or a Texan one like Shiner or Lone Star. I probably should give Armadillo Ale a try, since it’s a new brew produced right here in town. If I want to go wheat-free, I’ll use hard apple cider]. And one more ingredient in equal quantity: lard. Don’t be squeamish; if you’re eating pork, bathe it in the fat with which it was originally designed to be flavored and enriched, preferably great quality leaf lard, expertly prepared. There are plenty of good cooks around who are willing to go to the fuss of rendering their own batches of top-quality lard, but since I have access to grass-fed goodness of that sort I can’t imagine why I should.
A while before serving time, strain the falling-apart pork out of the liquid into a large baking dish, shred it, and put it in a hot enough oven to crisp the top layer, removing it for a toss and redistribution a couple of times so that there are plenty of nice crispy bits throughout but keeping watch to keep the meat generally very moist. Skim most of the fat from the reserved liquids and cook them down to reduce for a sauce while the meat is crisping.
Then pile a bunch of carnitas on your plate and surround it with loads of other food. Eat.

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Carnitas and all the fixings.

Don’t forget some coleslaw when there’s shredded meat, whether BBQ style or otherwise; the two are simply good friends for a good reason. The version of the day had sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds, and a light lemon vinaigrette with a dash of honey. See, addicted as we are, I can sometimes vary slightly from my standard sushi ginger flavored creamy coleslaw. The creamy dressing, whether made with mayonnaise or yogurt or sour cream in its dressing, would’ve added elements not all vegetarians like, so I wanted to keep an option or two open. Cheese dip for the vegetable crudites was not going to allow such a thing, including not only the grated sharp cheddar and Parmesan cheeses but also an equal mix of mayo and sour cream, along with a pinch of cayenne and a dash of bacon-flavored salt), and I had asked ahead and was pretty sure I didn’t have any true vegetarians, let alone vegans, coming that day, only lighter meat eaters.

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Slaw, of course. Always a good choice, but wait–how to choose its style remains…

Since the non-meatatarians in the crowd might otherwise have been stuck with just salad and fruit, vegetable, cracker sorts of foods, I did make up a big batch of rice without my typical inclusion of homemade bone broth, substituting homemade vegetable broth for the occasion. I credit myself with making a pretty dandy broth, no matter what the kind, so no one was shortchanged in the equation, I hope.

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Corn salad. What, you need more?

The last side dish leaned back toward the savory and did include a little mayonnaise: corn salad made with fresh kernels of sweet corn, diced tomatoes and avocados, and for those who wished, crisp bacon pieces to sprinkle on top. You know me: if a passel of pork is a good thing as the main dish, why not more pork alongside it?

Besides, it seemed in keeping with the whole theme of the event, that of the constellation surrounding the centerpiece enhancing the latter’s goodness, that our friends enhanced our day, and therefore our happiness, by sharing the time and the meal with us.

Foodie Tuesday: Pleasing Paternal Palates

photoFather’s Day 2012 arrived on a date when we were both in the same state as our respective fathers. How about that. So it was our pleasure to gather up both sets of parents and the one sibling in close enough proximity and have a meal together.

I know that you all love food, and most of you love cooking and entertaining, too–especially if it’s for loved ones. You’ve told me so on many a Tuesday, not to mention with many a blog post of your own heralding the glories of your hospitality. I appreciate these wonders more than I can express–and the insufficiency of my words to do so is still mitigated, I think, by your awareness of my good intentions when it comes to these things. But being ‘on the road’ and having no kitchen to call my own, I knew it was the better part of valor to find a good meeting place that would supply the edible, drinkable provisions and let us all sit back and do the eating and drinking unencumbered by such worries.

Since all seven of us in the party are fans of various kinds of seafood, we opted for the Father’s Day Brunch at a local waterfront eatery well known for such stuff and let it go at that. Not a bad choice. Buffets are often a dangerous no-man’s-land of dining, to be sure, but a very popular and well-attended one is virtually guaranteed not to have the infamous nastiness of those foods that crepitate tragically on the serving board until petrification or putrefaction begin to gain ascendance over them and everything gets that creepy sheen of something that may or may not have been prepared using automotive lubricants and plumbers’ tools. Father’s Day is clearly one of the Top Five when it comes to holidays associated with hauling the parental units off to an eatery, because of course even the worst cretins among us know at some level that it’s not very polite to ask Dad to cook up his own celebratory treats and not a lot of us have the time, talent or gumption to do the deed ourselves. So we were not remotely surprised to see our restaurant of choice, and all of those we passed en route to it, jammed and jiggling with crowds of hungry visitors.

The buffet was not particularly unusual or even, probably, more sumptuous than many we’ve seen or heard others describe, but it was certainly lavish enough and varied enough to keep all of us from trying very hard to converse in the noisily crowded dining space, but rather left us making cheerily knowing winks across table at each other while cramming yet another tidbit of roasted or sugary whatsis onto a fork and into our grinning mouths. The weather was far more cooperative than predicted, so we enjoyed sunny views out through the expansive windows straight across the Sound to the big city, gulls parked on the old piling remnants of the piers adjacent to us, scudding clouds that failed to reflect in the increasing chop of the water and a few water taxis and ferries cutting through the chop to zigzag from shore to shore.photoWe ate lox and blackened salmon and hot-smoked salmon, fried shrimps and steamed prawns and seafood chowder, crab legs and crab Benedicts and crab salad; fruit and greens and vegetables and pickled goods. We ate roasted potatoes and hashed and steamed and whipped; roasts of beef and lamb and pork, and sausages and bacon; pasta and bread, muffins and scones. Cakes and pancakes, crepes and rolls, desserts and cheeses and so, so much more. Bloody Marys and coffee and tea and liquid chocolate poured from a fountain over pretty much whatever you might opt to stick under the flow. Fingers included, if I judge correctly by the number of small persons hovering near said fountain. But who’s to blame them? It’s Father’s Day, after all, and without those little scarpers there would be no fathers to celebrate, eh.photo