Monday, December 21, 2009

Rural coffee shops? More than just for cows...

I am aware that the title of this blog implies exclusivity given to the region of Milwaukee, but I just had to write about the thriving coffee shops of the area where I sort of, well, grew up (cognitively that is, since I only lived there for 4 years).

Yesterday, I decided to get into the car and make the 3-hour drive to Lancaster, WI. You may be curious to know how a Jew ends up in Lancaster. Well, this is for another time and another place; I will just say that my mother ended up there, and that is where I go to visit her, shaking off my urban (is Milwaukee so urban?) coat and donning an eerie rural exterior that brings back memories long ago stored in the lower pyramidial tracts of my gray matter. In other words, I haven’t thought about this stuff for quite a while. It’s extremely Proustian to be here.

In any case, every city dweller knows that there is access to coffee at almost any moment, holiday or not. This has not always been the case for the denizen of the small town. My memories of coffee as a high school student in Platteville, WI, boil down (nice pun...) to a black plastic pitcher with free refills of dirty, brownish water, sometimes only made stronger tasting by the injection of carbon caused by some negligent person who didn’t think to take the carafe off the burner. This was coffee. The highly caffeinated robusta beans charged us with some sort of wonderful euphoria, then the cramps set in.
These days, there ARE coffee shops in small towns. The words coffee an shop, when put together, used to evoke danishes and coffee cake in metal and plastic containers on the counter and 5-cent lunches. To those in Amsterdam, it is code for another establishment type... Today, I can happily relate that there is actual espresso being served in these places. It may not be ideal, but it tastes stronger than the coffee anywhere else. There is even Wi-Fi as an added bonus.

At the very moment I am writing this, I am comfortably anchored to a chair at the Badger Brothers Coffee, on Main Street in Platteville, WI. It's a very relaxed place, with music from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" playing softly in the background and one or two customers busily typing on their laptops. The interior has been painted a light chocolate-caramel color and the tables and chairs,as well as the floor, are wood. There are "antique" computers on shelves, used only as decor (one happens to be an Apple IIe, I think). Every time a customer enters, the owner calls out their name, making it known that this is a community that invests time in each other. It's quite a place. Now, of course, I don't get the impression that being in a hurry would go over very well, but then again, that's not the pace of life around here.
Badger Brothers Coffee, LLC

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Baby Bok Choy and Unicorn Meat

My favorite meal to make when my other is not in the house is one of the simplest concoctions I have the good fortune to eat.

I go to the Asian International Market on 34th St. and National Ave. in Milwaukee’s Silver City neighborhood. The couple who own it are from Laos and have taken it over from the current owner of Thai Barbecue, a restaurant right next door.

This small, intimate grocery has quite the selection of comestibles from Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, reflecting the cultures of the people who shop there. At the very front of the store, across from the cashier, are pre-made dishes in plastic containers, perfect for a quick lunch on the go, or for taking home to heat up in the microwave. There are also sweets, like the steamed sweet coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves and deep-fried sesame balls. Near these treats is a large assortment of candy from various Asian countries, including Japan.

Behind the cashier you can find beauty and health products from Thailand, and on the same wall, toward the back of the store, is a refrigerated section containing drinks (various cans of iced coffee, coconut juices and others to tantalize your palate). In this section you can also find tofu, and at a reasonable price.

As you forge ahead, you find fish sauce, soy sauce, hot sauce (of course the famous sriracha and its generic equivalents) and other bottled goods. There are canned exotic fruits and in the very back of the first part of the store are frozen fish, seafood, and even giant water bugs, favorites in parts of Thailand, deep fried and served with sauce. Right in front of this second refrigerated unit, you will find tea and coffee.

If you are looking for fresh produce, you can go to the second room of the store. There you will not only find aromatics like mint, galangal and cilantro, but green mangoes, all kinds of greens and even congealed pork blood. Incidentally, this is the section of the store to find rice products such as spring roll skins and different kinds of rice (jasmine, etc.).

Once you have explored this place, you can stroll in confidently and buy the things you need.

As I wrote above, my favorite dish to make is extremely simple and you may find all of the ingredients at the Asian International Market.

Tofu and baby bok choy stir fry
Serves 1-2 people

- 3 Thai chilis, fresh or frozen, chopped (I find that buying a full package of them and freezing it after using what I need works very well. You can keep them in the freezer for a long time and just use two or three every so often)
- a scant ¼ cup of soy sauce
- a scant ¼ cup of seasoned rice vinegar
- ½ tsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp very thin ginger batons (more if you love ginger)
- 4 or 5 bunches baby bok choy, end cut off and chopped or any bitter green (winter cress, etc.)
- extra firm tofu cut into strips 2 inches long, one inch wide and ½ inch deep (about 10 strips)
- 1 tsp sesame or peanut oil for frying
- one cup jasmine long grain rice
- 1 and ¾ cups water

1. Start rice in rice cooker. Pour rice in with water and turn on cooker.

2. Make the sauce:
Put the chilis, soy sauce, rice vinegar, brown sugar and ginger together in a medium glass bowl and whisk well. Taste to make sure the sauce fits your palate. Some people like it saltier and some more with a vinegar taste. Still others like more sugar and less chili, etc.

3. Prep the baby bok choy and soak in water in a big bowl.

4. Heat non-stick deep rim frying pan with the oil on medium-high heat. Make sure that the oil is hot before putting in the tofu.

5. While the pan is heating, dry the tofu with paper towel to make sure that all of the moisture is gone, otherwise it the oil will splatter.

6. Fry the tofu, making sure to brown both sides (about 3 minutes or so on each side).
7. Drain the bok choy and use salad spinner to take away remaining moisture.

8. When tofu is ready, pour in bok choy and shake pan a bit to mix around the tofu and the bok choy.

9. Pour in sauce and mix thoroughly. Fry for another 3 minutes on the same medium high heat.

10. Transfer tofu and greens immediately to medium bowl and leave sauce in the pan.

11. When rice is done, let sit for 3 minutes so that it becomes a bit sticky, then serve tofu and bok choy over rice. Season with hot sauce if desired.

This is a very versatile recipe. I have used collard greens, Chinese broccoli, carrots, and cabbage. I have served it over rice vermicelli, as well. Try it and see what you can come up with.

For dessert, I will sometimes buy a tricolor (coconut milk, various jellied shapes made of agar-agar, and taro). You can find this in the refrigerator at the front of the first room at the Asian International Market.

Milwaukee's Asian Markets

The next few posts on this new blog will be descriptions of certain of my favorite Asian markets in Milwaukee. Always good for an experience that will make you forget you're in the US, these markets also provide great value for foodstuffs that are available at places like Whole Foods, Metro Market and Sendiks for at least half the price. You may argue that it takes more gas to get there, depending on where you live... That may be true, but if you stock up, you'll save and get to know your city!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Paht Chee and the jamboree

Once we were past the border, it was time for the exploration we had been so eager to experience. The first vendor we encountered was a Mexican juice stand. Now, we were just not thirsty, but the thought of returning some time during our tenure here was not out of the range of possibility. We marched apprehensively on.

The festive qualities of this place reminded me of an open air market in any of the number of countries I had been to in my travels, but with a complete air of American 'flair', if one can use this word to describe what I was experiencing. Americans know how to take something completely universal and make it into something that only smacks of fried food and baseball caps. This place was truly the most melted pot I had been to in a long time, with the exception of maybe NYC.

Walking in and out of the jam-packed aisles of what some would call junk (of course not me), it occurred to us that interviewing the people that make this place magic might be of some interest. After all, the merchandise was really not what made the atmosphere; it was the people selling it. We met a woman that sold perfume, who told us with some kind of irony that she only did this when she wasn't on duty as a health inspector for the city of Chicago: we weren't quite sure what to make of that. In addition to this hawker of cheap scents, we met two people who would then become the subject of this posting: Gina Alenas and her husband, Alex DeJesus.

Gina and Alex came to the US separately from the Philippines and met in Chicago in the 80s. After marrying, they embarked on the adventure that one might call the American dream: they began selling Asian merchandise at the Fair. Gina was the more verbose one, telling us that on top of selling statues and bamboo, she is also an expert in Paht Chee and Feng Shui, and that if we knew of any way to help her business, she would appreciate it. She also recounted with enthusiasm her plans to open a Feng Shui consulting business in Milwaukee on Vliet St., around the corner from the Times Theater. If you're in the neighborhood, you may want to check it out to see if she's there yet. We could all use a bit of advice when it comes to arranging our living quarters. If interested, her booth number at the Fair is #776 and her phone number for Feng Shui consulting is 224- 650-0513. You can see more of her wares at

After our in-depth conversation with Gina, we did indeed return to the Mexican Juice stand and have a jamaica.
This drink made from the hibiscus flower is extremely refreshing and can be made easily at home. The flowers can be bought at El Rey markets everywhere in Milwaukee. Indeed, this was a great end to a great day!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Shopping: a culture all its own

From malls to thrift shops, from boutiques to stalls, shopping can be a bane or a boon. Depending on the state of mind of the shopper and the reasons for taking the jaunt, the experience of going somewhere to exchange money for goods or services can take you to another world. On a recent trip down south (of Milwaukee, that is), we realized just that.

In the car, we talked about times in other countries when haggling became imperative and quality depended on the relationship between the seller and the buyer. We discussed differences between shopping in the US and shopping elsewhere. As the conversation became its own entity, so fascinated and engrossed became passenger and driver, we nearly missed it. But there it was, larger than life:

Yes, indeed! The famed 7 Mile Fair.

It 's always been very interesting to me that any mention of this marketplace to anyone native of Milwaukee that I know has always ended with either a snide remark or a dismissal of anything of value that the place could offer. I for one could never understand it, since places like this for a people watcher and amateur window shopper have been my constant companions since just about birth (my mother's favorite infinitive was to garage sale: I garage sale, you garage sale, s/he garage sales,etc.; although she always used the gerund: garage saling. As in, "Let's go garage saling today!")

When a friend and colleague of mine (we both call the Alliance Francaise de Milwaukee home) told me she had never been to 7 Mile Fair, I jumped at the chance to go again. It's not often that I meet someone who is willing to jump in the car and go to a sprawling indoor market that at some points resembles the world's largest Dollar Store.

Pulling off of the freeway and onto the off ramp, the excitement grew. At the stop sign before turning into the parking lot- now this is probably the largest parking lot you could ever see-we looked at each other one last time. As we turned our heads away from each other and toward the gravel-coated car storage area, I stepped on the gas and 30 seconds later we had entered the lot. Still early enough to find a fairly close parking space, I pulled into one a few hundred feet from the grand entrance. We got out of the car and started the short walk to the mouth of the building. As we were walking we noticed-you couldn't help it, really - a large banner:

We both thought it was at once poignant and ironic, since all of the signs in the parking lot were in Spanish and English. That was our kind of America. In our minds, though, the only America we could evoke was the one that wanted everyone to speak English and go back to where they cam from if they weren't interested in our 'official language' (in fact, English is not the official language of the US; we have none.) As we walked into the lobby to pay our $1.50 each to enter the bazaar, the American souk, the marché aux puces that is 7 Mile Fair, I told Beth that she would be feeling like she was leaving the US the minute she entered 7 Mile Fair soil. We had to wonder: was the "God Bless America" a way of telling us that we were leaving the US and were about to cross the border? We felt like taking out our passports...

Stay tuned for part two of "Shopping: A culture all its own".