COLUMN | CHEF'S JOURNEY | MARCY ALFONSI
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The dog and tomato days of summer | 9.11
I love grocery shopping | 7.11
Al Fresco Dining on West 7th | 5.11
Summer 2000 | 3.11[IMAGE]
Chef's Journey Home 1.11
The dog and tomato days of summer… | 9.11

When you’re someone who works in food, people typically assume that not only do you know how to cook, but also you are a master of any and all things food-related. Most people wouldn’t dream of letting a podiatrist perform brain surgery on their Aunt Martha, and you might get into a wee bit of trouble if (having watched countless TV crime dramas and feeling like an “expert”) you decide to arrest random strangers for jaywalking. That said, I can’t tell you how many disappointed looks I’ve been faced with upon declaring that I am, at best, a mediocre vegetable gardener.

Every year I try, oh how I try! And, truth be told, I have improved my stats a bit here and there as summers come and go, but I still struggle to justify my yearly investment in seeds, seedlings, compost and top soil.

This year was no different: some hits, some misses, some just “meh” results. Cucumbers? Boy howdy, did I win in the cucumber category this year. I’m pretty sure I could eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next month and I would still have a crisper-drawer full of those buggers. At first the bumper crop was exciting, but now that my fridge is full and I’ve exhausted my (fairly extensive) arsenal of ways to use them, most days my cucumber picking is prefaced with a very long sigh and me wondering to myself if the neighbors will mind finding cucumbers in their mailboxes. Beets were also a success, and (luckily) so far I haven’t harvested so many that I need to think of ways to covertly force them upon the unsuspecting. Rhubarb, various herbs, hot peppers, carrots and radishes were all moderately to highly successful, while strawberries, Swiss chard, cherries and currants were total failures this year.

But the one that I struggle with — my nemesis, the thorn in my side — is the one thing I want to be successful more than all the others. Tomatoes. Every year I try to coax my plants to produce plump, juicy, flavorful beauties, and more often than not my efforts are rewarded with small, dry, disease-stricken orbs of sadness. You name it — heirloom varieties, standard varieties, “proven winner” varieties — they’ve all let me down over the years. I am Captain Ahab, tomatoes are my white whale; I will not stop trying until I emerge victorious! This year has been slightly better than the others — I’ve harvested a few so far that have been…OK. Just OK. I’m still waiting for the Brandywines to fully develop before I will be able to decide if I can put this year in the “win” column, but even if it’s a total bust, you know I’ll be in line at the garden store next year, tomato seedlings in hand and a cautiously hopeful smile on my face.

Much like Ahab, I am nothing if not determined.

To reach The Chef: e-mail editor@communityreporter.org; call 651-665-0068; or by post to Community Reporter, 265 Oneida Street, St. Paul 55102.

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I love grocery shopping | 7.11

For some people, grocery shopping is usually one of those “have to do” sort of things, right up there with mowing the lawn and remembering to put the recycling out on Friday. Dealing with the parking lot, shopping cart maneuvering that makes you feel like you’re playing bumper cars, and long lines at the register made even longer by the lady in front who demands to use her expired coupon for five cents off a can of green beans don’t exactly add to the experience, that’s for sure.

For me, I see the whole experience quite differently. In fact, I love grocery shopping. I think I can safely say that I go to grocery stores, large and small, at least four times a week, sometimes more. Though I’m not immune to needing an occasional trip to the “big box” stores to stock up on staple items, I’d rather take advantage of the bounty of diverse markets that reside in our neighborhood, and that’s exactly what I spent a few hours doing today. Our corner of the world has many options to choose from: organic, local, Latin, Eastern European, Asian, Middle Eastern, and kosher, to name a few. It’s all here; you just need to know where to look for it.

My first stop was at La Limeña Market on the corner of West Seventh and View. This market falls into the “small but mighty” category. Though it occupies a space not much larger than some people’s living rooms, the shelves are stocked with a large variety of Latin items. There is a tiny but well-stocked bakery case, a counter in the back with a nice selection of very fresh meats, and a wide selection of canned and dry goods. I stocked up on queso fresco (crumbly cheese much like feta), bitter orange juice for marinades, and canned chipotles. Much like the next market I visited, the prices were great, which makes it easy to try new items — especially if you feel like you get into a cooking rut occasionally. (I do!)

My next stop was Kiev Foods in Sibley Plaza. I truly love this little gem of a market, and I’ve been making the occasional trip there for years. This market sells food items primarily from Eastern Europe, but they also sell some items from the Middle East as well as a few items from Africa. They have everything — lovely packaged cookies and candies, lots of pickles, canned goods, a fabulous meat/salami case, fresh baked goods, and terrific sandwiches, priced right and made to order. Today I picked up a huge jar of cornichons (tiny little dill pickles), hot Hungarian salami, cranberry jam, black currant juice, and a cream horn from the bakery case that was light as air and left me covered in powdered-sugar happiness.

My final stop was at the market in Cossetta’s restaurant on West Seventh. There really is no better place to stock up on Italian ingredients, and they manage to pack a wide variety into a pretty small space. I love the selection of pasta shapes, many of which you don’t see anywhere else. They also sell candy and chocolates, too many tomato products to count, fresh artisan breads, many fine cheeses and cured meats, and imported bottled waters and sodas. I grabbed a loaf of crusty bread, some Romano cheese, yet even more salami, a few bags of dried pasta and some sparkling water before I headed home.

Later today, I may make a quick run to Mississippi Market on West Seventh for some organic salad greens and something from the deli for lunch. Or maybe I’ll run to Cooper’s Foods for milk, flour, or some more kosher chocolate-covered corn flakes that I’ve recently become quite addicted to. Either way, I know that everything I need is just a quick car trip, bike ride, or leisurely walk away. I also know that I have lots of new items to help get me out of that pesky dinner rut.

I want to get to know you — what you’re cooking, and what you’re interested in. There is a whole world of food going on, even in our little corner of the world, and I’m hoping that we can explore it together.

To reach The Chef you may e-mail editor@communityreporter.org; call 651-665-0068 and leave a message; or by post to Community Reporter, 265 Oneida Street, St. Paul 55102.

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Al Fresco Dining on West 7th

As I type this, I am looking out my window at a thermometer that seems to have a different idea of what spring is than I do. For me, spring means green grass, winter-weary plants poking through the ground, sunshine, bike rides, temperatures above 30 degrees and not a flake of snow in sight. Spring also heralds one of my favorite things about our normally lovely (yet much too short) warm season: outdoor dining. Unless there is rain, hurricane-like winds or an earthquake — if I’m at a restaurant or bar and they have any sort of outside seating, whether it is a fancypants patio or a rickety table and chairs plopped onto the sidewalk as an afterthought, you can bet I will be firmly planted where I can breathe unrecycled air and swat the occasional mosquito while sipping my chardonnay.

Luckily for us, our neighborhood has a number of perfectly lovely options when it comes to al fresco dining, and (hopefully) by the time this goes to print, snow will be a distant memory and our thoughts will have turned to savoring every second of what I like to call “not winter.”

If I hop on my bike and head north along the I-35 trail, I can easily be enjoying the swanky rooftop patio at the Liffey within ten minutes of leaving my house. Though most people don’t normally associate Ireland with basking in the sun, this is one place where those things go together beautifully. They serve a full menu on the patio, so you can order up some fish & chips and enjoy an ice-cold Guinness while getting a bit of color on your pasty winter skin.

Heading down West Seventh, if you’re craving a burger and a slightly shadier patio, check out Burger Moe’s. Situated between two buildings, there is just enough coverage from the sun that you won’t have to worry about unfortunate sunglass tan-lines while enjoying your Tater Tots and Kobe beef burger. This location has housed a number of different restaurants over the years, and I have frequented all of them, especially in the summer, if for no other reason than the chance to enjoy this particular patio.

Further down the street, if you hang a right on Jefferson you will be heading to the Tavern on the Avenue (formerly Spanky’s). Though slightly less fancy, the owners have taken the time to put up a fence to shield the outside tables and there are always plenty of umbrellas for shade. As this is just a few short blocks from my house, I can walk here, and on the way there and back I can talk myself into believing that I am burning off all of the calories from my meatloaf sliders and onion rings.

Finally, if you head down Milton to Randolph, you’ll hit Skinner’s, one of my favorites. Here you will find a smallish, but completely shady patio where you can enjoy a fabulous Reuben (my favorite in St. Paul), or one of their fantastic pizzas, without breaking a sweat.

Even though the weather right now is reminding me of nothing even closely resembling summer, my thoughts are racing toward that glorious moment when I can order up some food, take a sip of a cold beverage, and shoo away random bugs with a perfectly content smile on my face.

I want to get to know you — what you’re cooking, and what you’re interested in. There is a whole world of food going on, even in our little corner of the world, and I’m hoping that we can explore it together.

To reach The Chef you may e-mail editor@communityreporter.org; call 651-655-6084 and leave a message; or by post to Community Reporter, 265 Oneida Street, St. Paul 55102.

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Summer 2000 | 3.11

In the summer of 2000, I found myself working at the No Wake Café, a restaurant located on a former tugboat that had been converted into a small restaurant and Bed & Breakfast docked at Harriet Island. After a particularly grueling weekend dinner service on a typically hot and humid July night, pretty much all we kitchen folk wanted to do was clean up and find a meal that in no way resembled any of the 250 or more meals we had already cooked that night. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good the food is where you work — when you’re tired, dirty, and needing sustenance, sometimes all you want is something…different. I can’t tell you how many cooks I know, many of them at some of the best joints in town, who want nothing more than a good cheeseburger or a quick run to the drive-thru of some fast food place after a night of preparing “fancy food” for the masses. That night, we were no exception.

The problem was, while the rest of the working world typically wraps up their work day around 5 p.m. or so, many who work in restaurants are punching out well after midnight, very often limiting our after-work food options to frozen pizza or extra olives in our well-deserved martini.

A group of us set out in my car, deciding to just drive down West Seventh until we found anywhere still open and serving some kind of food beyond burgers or pizza. By the time we reached the Lexington intersection and we hadn’t found anything, I started to worry my dinner choices would be limited to pepperoni vs. sausage. As we neared the end of West Seventh— I think we all had pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that our microwaves would likely be getting a workout very soon. Then…could it be? Is that an “open” sign? Could it be true?

La Hacienda, (2467 W7th; 651-699-3213) at the time recently opened little Mexican/Latin restaurant located in Sibley Plaza still had their sign on, so we pulled into the parking lot and hoped for the best. The sign on the door indicated that they should have closed hours earlier, but when we tentatively opened the door, expecting to be turned away, they waved us in and said that it would be no problem feeding us as long as we weren’t picky about what we ate. I don’t remember everything I had that night, but I remember thinking that it was some of the best and most authentic Mexican food that I had ever had. Everything was fresh and delicious, and best of all it didn’t come out of a convenience store freezer. We were so grateful for the hospitality, and even more so for the food.

I couldn’t believe it when I realized the other day that I hadn’t returned to La Hacienda since that hot July night years ago, so I decided to have lunch there today with an old friend and see if it was as good as I remembered. I had simple beef corn soft-shell tacos, and they were fantastic — fresh, unfussy, and exactly what they should be.

I’m embarrassed it took me so long to make it back, but now that I have, I doubt a month will go by without my smiling face in one of their booths, happy to have such a gem of a restaurant in my gem of a neighborhood.

I want to get to know you — what you’re cooking, and what you’re interested in. There is a whole world of food going on, even in our little corner of the world, and I’m hoping that we can explore it together.

To reach The Chef e-mail editor@communityreporter.org or leave a message at 651-655-0068; or mail to Community Reporter, 265 Oneida St, St. Paul 55102.

 
Chef's Journey Home | 1.11

In November of 1999, my husband and I found ourselves facing a dilemma: the Grand Avenue-area duplex we were living in had been recently sold, and we either had to move into the larger, twice-the-price unit downstairs, or we had to hit the road and find a new place to live.

At that time, I was a fairly newly minted Culinarian, having just graduated from the Culinary Arts program at Saint Paul College a few years prior. I was still establishing myself in the restaurant world, working 1-3 jobs at any given time, both to pay the bills and to get as much experience as I possibly could. My husband was a recent U of M graduate as well, and was lucky to find an entry-level position in his field, but the pay wasn’t great. We were at a point in our lives where buying a house seemed like the dumbest thing we could possibly do, but the thought of schlepping those boxes to yet another nonpermanent home became a deal-breaker for me. I just couldn’t bear to do it.

We looked everywhere, thanks to a pair of fabulous realtors with the patience of saints — you name the neighborhood, and it’s very likely that we looked at houses there that we either couldn’t afford, were in such states of disrepair that the phrase “fire sale” comes to mind, or were so small that having more than one guest over at a time would have required us to forego furniture.

When the realtors suggested the “West Seventh” neighborhood, I have to admit I had never heard of, driven through, or even thought about what this “West Seventh” might be like. We were skeptical, but after looking at what seemed like hundreds of houses, we were game for anything. All in all, we ended up looking at exactly one house in this neighborhood — that that was all we needed. We fell in love, and within two months we were spending a chilly Thanksgiving weekend moving those dreaded boxes for (hopefully) the last time in long time.

In the nearly eleven years that we have lived here our love affair with the house has ebbed and flowed but we have grown only closer to this neighborhood. The changes have been slow, but they have been good changes — new and interesting restaurants, new and renovated buildings, exciting developments along the West Seventh corridor, and an ever-strengthening sense of community. For once in my life, I have been taking an active interest in my neighborhood and want to help in any way I can to make it better than ever. So, here I am.

For many years I worked in various restaurants (including the Mildred Pierce Café on Randolph, which I miss dearly). For about three years I owned my own restaurant, the Marimar Café in South Minneapolis, where I truly became a culinary jack-of-all-trades: cook, pastry chef, hostess, bartender, dishwasher — if it was restaurant-related, I did it. Very long story short, we went the way of many restaurants, closing our doors for good in April 2004. In a wonderful twist of fate, later that year I found myself being handed the most exciting opportunity to date — teaching at the school where I had fine-tuned my home cooking skills into a career: Saint Paul College. I’ve been there six years now, helping shape future cooks, chefs, pastry chefs and the like. I feel so very lucky to be living in the city that I love and working at doing what I love. I’ve honed my skills in this city, and as I often tell my students, “I may not know it all, but I’m pretty sure I know more than you when it comes to cooking.”
So, Dear Reader, you might be wondering at this point, “Where is she going with this?”

I came to the Community Reporter with a few ideas, and I hope to let those ideas unfold over the coming months. First off, I know from experience that, while many people love to cook, many have questions about it and would like simple, easy to understand answers without all of the complicated terminology that we food people love to use to make us feel smarter than everyone else. I would love for you to ask me the questions you’re dying to ask, no matter how seemingly simple or frustratingly complicated. E-mail me your questions — don’t be shy. Second, if you know someone who you would like to see interviewed here, I’d like to know. Maybe your sister makes the best jams and jellies that you’ve ever had, maybe your neighbor has the most impressive vegetable garden every year, and maybe you know a prep cook from one of our neighborhood restaurants with a really great back story or hidden talent. If it’s food-related in any way, I want to know.

I want to get to know you — what you’re cooking, and what you’re interested in. There is a whole world of food going on, even in our little corner of the world, and I’m hoping that we can explore it together.


 
To reach The Chef you may e-mail editor@communityreporter.org; call 651-655-6084 and leave a message; or by post to Community Reporter, 265 Oneida Street, St. Paul 55102.

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