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!