Good bread was not always an important part of my life. Good toast was what mattered. Through my culinary journey, I realized that the two go hand in hand. I have not been much for a toaster as a way of achieving toasted bread. I have probably owned a total of 4 in my lifetime. As a child, my maternal grandfather had a system where he placed a slice in our wood burning oven. Once it browned you would slather it with butter and place it back in for a few minutes. The end result was a delicious piece of crisp, buttery toast and sometimes a smoky oven. My paternal grandmother made buttery rolls and my step mother loaves of delicious white bread. I never really knew a different type existed until l moved to NYC. I had seen pictures in Cuisine magazine during my college years but none of those places existed in Wyoming. It was the early 80’s and the hippy bread movement of the 70’s was finding its way to Casper, Wyoming. A sandwich made from sunflower bread with avocado and sprout was all the rage and I thought I was cool by eating them at the Cheese Barrel. When I arrived in NYC, one of the first bakeries I visited was Sign of the Dove. I was amazed by the variety and craftsmanship. During my lunch hours from Woman’s Day Specials Magazine, I would wander over to Ninth Avenue and buy the seeded Italian Loaf that was housed in a small bakery directly under the Port Authority overhang. A weathered wooden green screen door led me to an old toothless woman with her gray hair in a bun, an apron and her scraggily, orange cat. She smiled when I handed her the $3 for the loaf of bread and placed it in a brown paper sack. It was magical going there and worth the walk over from Times Square. I once made the pilgrimage to Bread Alone in Woodstock to buy a loaf created by Daniel Leaderman. Tom Cat Bakery was the go to bread in New York in the mid 80’s. I went out to visit Sarah Black who at the time was leasing space from Tom Cat to make her beautiful Italian loaves that she taught herself to make from Carol Field’s Italian Baker. I wanted to work there and learn the secret of making great bread. Amy’s Bread would come along later and during my time at Home Restaurant, Amy’s would deliver big brown paper bags of crusty bread for the restaurant. I had tried to learn the craft of bread making but the last year I knew I would spend in NYC, there just wasn’t enough time. I figured later I could make it happen when I moved back to the Black Hills in ‘96. That didn’t happen and it would take 17 years for an artisan bakery to emerge that would make that crusty loaf I was looking for in South Dakota? On top of that it would be 390 miles away? (www.breadico.com ) Towards the last few years of my restaurant, Nancy Silverton sold her bread recipe to a large company that started mass producing La Brea Bakery bread and supplying it to Middle America. I was able to obtain par baked rolls and loaves to use. A dream comes true. It was almost as good as having an artisan baker in town. Some people thought we were serving stale bread, others found the rolls too hard to chew while a few people could eat five rolls with dinner. I couldn’t understand why everyone wants gas station bread, that soft gooey Wonder Bread where with one hand you could form it into a ball. Now with my restaurant closed, I have to rely on myself to make one of Jim Lahey’s recipes. As my 18 years in Rapid City approaches, I wonder if I will ever be able to buy a loaf like Chad Robertson’s here or it is time to move on.
Late spring brings wild asparagus to the Black Hills. The first time I actually saw them was the day after the big fire. I was standing outside, surveying the rubble from the former Corn Exchange. Michael Melius appeared with a bucket of just picked wild asparagus. I had forgotten that earlier in the week he had come in to the Corn and had chatted with me about local produce. He wondered if I would be interested in fresh, wild asparagus. I was elated. The first thing that popped into my mind were savory tartlets that I could sell as a lunch item. I agreed and he said he would stop by on Friday. Well here it was Friday and we both were in shock staring at what was left of my little specialty food shop. Knowing Michael I believe he just gave me some asparagus and I cooked it later at my sister’s house where we were temporarily living. I would hook up with him and his local produce down the path when the Corn rose up from the ashes like a phoenix. I never realized that I would end up on the other half of the block that wasn’t destroyed. I would purchase purple garlic, Yukon gold potatoes and of course wild asparagus that I lovingly prepared for my patrons. I am always perplexed why more people don’t create salads out of asparagus. It seems here that everyone wants to do it as a side with a big steak. At the Corn I felt it was just too cost prohibitive to serve as an entrée vegetable and thought it more creative to use as a starter. I created a Maytag blue cheese and orange segment salad with wild asparagus for Rachel Ray’s Magazine one year. I put them in a goat cheese tarts with a side of mixed greens and for my lunch today a tomato and mozzarella salad drizzled with a little extra virgin olive oil, squeeze of lemon and fresh chives. Tomatoes are not really in season and normally I would of roasted tomatoes in the oven to create the salad but since this tomato had been on my counter for the past week, I felt it was in perfect condition at room temperature. Excellent with a great rose from Kermit Lynch!
The Silver Palate
One of my first loves was cookbooks. I didn’t discover this passion till college. I worked at the library and came across a magazine called Cuisine. I savored every page I read. Not in my wildest dreams would I know that two years later I would be living in NYC and be employed by CBS Magazines where Cuisine would be published two floors above me. Cuisine led me to cookbooks. Books that could inspire one to run out and shop for all the ingredients and spend hours creating that one dish. Back in Sea Gate (Brooklyn), my first husband Chris and I spent many a late night eating dinners. These endeavors led to a Christmas gift from my husband. The NY Times 60-Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey. An inscription inside stated “ya probably don’t’ need this, but you’re always complaining about how long it takes to make dinner…maybe this’ll help. I love ya, whatever ya think-Craig Claiborne.” I still get a chuckle when I read this. To me a good cookbook takes you through a journey. These are the books I keep. I’m embarrassed to say I have over 400 but in the world of food, you can only be a line cook so long before your body gives out. One must have an exit strategy. I decided I would create a food library for a writing career. The Silver Palate is one of these. It was 1984 and I had been living in New York City for 4 months when I stumbled across this cookbook. The shop had been open since 1977 on the upper west side and the original owners ended up selling it in 1988. For me, the recipe Chicken Monterey awoke my taste buds. Incorporating grated zest of an orange and its juice to a chicken dish with squash, tomatoes and fresh parsley just clicked for me. My very first attempt at making pate was with their Chicken Liver with Green Peppercorns recipe which I made for a 4th of July picnic on Coney Island. Back in Wyoming, you wouldn’t see half of these ingredients you needed for the recipes. If you don’t have this in your culinary library, I suggest a scouring of used books stores or a click on Amazon.
I recently closed my restaurant after 15 years. It was quite a journey. I didn’t include the two years prior that I spent on opening up my version of a mini Dean and Deluca, December of 1996. The original Corn Exchange never got to see its full potential due to a massive fire that burned the entire half of the block to the ground. The summer of paperwork to get a disaster loan to rebuild and the fall and winter of the initial start over of a new Corn Exchange concept that opened on March 14, 1998. A successful business requires details which I thrive off of but after a while those details physically and mentally wear you out. The fact that you already live in a culinary isolated place makes it doubly hard to bounce back. No Blue Bottle Coffee shop to spur your inspiration, or a Kitchen, Arts and Letters nor a seat at Hog’s Island Oyster Bar or a pizza at Osteria. These require a two plane ride or a five and a half hour car ride south to Colorado. I don’t regret any of it. It has been quite the journey that has led me up to this point. Sometimes too much time to reflect isn’t good. Lying in bed, racking your brain trying to reinvent yourself is exhausting. The fact that you just came from years of being the culinary cruise director of a tea salon to a life of solitude is a huge change. I am excited to see where this new door leads too.