CHOPPED. FARM TO TABLE TO WORK.
Two years ago I was invited by Riverview Gardens to be one of the professional chefs competing in their annual fundraiser, Chopped, Farm to Fork to Work. I cooked against Ryan, my friend and owner at Field & Fire, in Greenville, and Liborio, who is also a friend these days, owner at Osorio’s on Casaloma.
No chance in hell I would win. But I was going to try. I invited a strong sous chef to help, my friend Mark, who had been a chef at Lawrence University. That was two years ago, and coming from someone who can’t remember what she had for breakfast, I know I made pasta from scratch in about twenty minutes. Mark thought I was crazy when I told him I wanted to go for pasta. The ready-made gnocchi on the shelf would have been easier, but that’s not how I do things, my friends. Mark went with it and in thirty minutes we had fresh pasta and steak. Ready, set, taste!
When it was time to announce the winners I knew I had no chance. I was the pastry chef going against these two talented men who cooked daily for a living, and some tasty stuff, too. They called 3rd place, it wasn’t me! Then when they called second place and I realized we had won I was in shock! No way that the “little baker girl”, as I have been called, had won. I reminded Ryan of my victory for a while every time I visited Field & Fire. Like us, the joke got old, and I have left him alone now. Maybe though, when you see him there, ask him if he can whip you a pasta dish, pasta from scratch, in less than thirty. He will get a kick out of it.
Last year Mark and I decided not to participate as the pandemic was still affecting us all differently and we thought it was best to sit it out.
This year, however, there we were again. This time we were up against Alex, from Mark’s East Side and Aaron, from Three Three Five in Green Bay. Again. No chance in hell that Mark, who doesn’t even cook professionally anymore, and I, who “just bake” would beat these beasts.
We planned a bit once we saw the pantry, which was so much better this year than two years ago. Mark suggested a chimichurri sauce to brighten things up but since the day was kinda gloomy, and I have fall on the brain, I was thinking something warm and saucy. Because I am “assertive” we went my way. There were potatoes in the pantry and I thought of a potato cake, whatever protein they gave us over, and a sauce. Boom. Simple, easy, tasty. Thirty minutes? No problem.
We opened the mystery basket and we got pork tenderloin, apples, coleslaw mix, a can of Bush’s Baked Beans (Jay Bush is a great sponsor to the event) and caramel apple whiskey. Perfect! Pair that with my potato cake idea, German! I mean, pork, apples and cabbage! That’s pretty much the three major German food groups 🙂 Doing my spin on German food against Alex who cooks German at Mark’s was a risk, but hey, that’s how I live.
Mark jumped on shredding some potatoes and dicing some onions while I snuck away and grabbed what I needed from the pantry. I got those potato cakes (potato, slaw, beans, onion, salt and pepper) on the frying pan while I started working on dicing apples for the apple compote of some sort I was concocting. I sautéed those on butter and browned sugar, added the whiskey, a pinch of salt and finished it with some vinegar for the sweet and sour sha-bang. Mark filleted the pork, seasoned to perfection, breaded to perfection and quickly fried it to perfection with butter and olive oil. Expect nothing but perfection from Mark. We had time to spare, because who needs a whole thirty minutes? 🙂 So I grabbed what I had left of the apples, quickly thinly sliced them with my dull knives, oh man, they were dullllll, and added a touch of fresh parsley and white wine vinegar. Boom. Plated. Mark even had time to finish cooking up our pork for “family meal”.
Alex cooked I don’t know what, but it looked great. I would order that at Mark’s. Now Aaron, who’s the new Ryan Sherman of my life, is the one I will pick on when I get the chance to see him. This guy is so talented, he’s a legend, and he made a tostada. Seriously, Aaron? You made an appetizer? Come on, man. The pretty plates you packed didn’t help. Jokes aside, it was so great to cook alongside those two. No chance l I am going to win. Alex will, 100% sure.
Well, he didn’t. I did. The underdog. The one with the dullest knives, both sides of the Fox River. On top of winning, the highlight of my night was to have Jeff Janson, from Urban Evolutions, tell me he loves the shop and our interior transports him to NYC, San Fran and LA. He agrees the outside needs a little love!
Thanks to the Board of Directors and to all the Volunteers who made last night’s event possible. To the very generous sponsors, a thank you and a cookie if you visit me at the shop. You are appreciated.
Chef Kyra and Hannah attended to watch me compete. I loved having them there.
Such a great night to raise funds for the programs at Riverview Gardens. If you are unfamiliar with the great impact Riverview Gardens makes in our community, learn more about their mission here.
Mark Biesack, chef turned real-estate investor/manager, can be found here.
Oh, did you see we launched a new class today? Come learn how to make pie with me!
Sign up, this class will sell fast!
OH, SOPHIA MARIA
I love being a mom. I don’t love being a stay at home mom.
Once Sophia was born I stayed home with her for a year, then the itch started. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had to work.
We started looking for properties for the shop. We found 819 W Wisconsin when Sophia was almost 1. The shop opened in October 2017.
All she’s known is that mommy makes cakes, she’s older than the shop, but not by much. She was there while we renovated, back in the day when I was so naive to think the shop would be a hobby shop for years before I got busy. Ah! Silly girl.
I work a lot. Even now that the shop is closed I still work a lot. The job of an entrepreneur is never done. We don’t get to clock out. That’s how I am wired and I love it.
It does mean that Sophia goes to school all week. I try to sneak her out early here and there, or she has a half day. Sometimes on Mondays we just stay home. Well, back when we lived normal lives. Nowadays nothing is normal.
When we got pregnant with Sophia we talked a lot about what kind of parents we would be. Pat has kept his word on being the fun parent, and some! I am the mean one. I am the one that brings out the flip flop if the flip flop needs to be talked to. It mostly sits somewhere and observes. I have lost my cool two or three times and hit her in the butt with it. I take a deep breath and remind myself that I will not raise Sophia the way I was raised, then I feel ashamed and shitty. I am not a perfect mom and being a mom is the hardest job I have ever had.
We have always said Sophia would not be a very tech savvy kid. We always jokingly asked for toys with no batteries and sticks. Pat said she would be perfectly fine if she grew up playing with sticks. She would have one stick, and if she broke that stick, she would have two toys! We have done mostly great with it. I can’t believe none of our friends actually gifted her a stick! I am proud to say she doesn’t know how to unlock my phone. We don’t live under a rock so she does know what YouTube is and what the icon looks like, but she was never allowed to sit and watch things on our phones. They are mom’s and dad’s, they are for work and not a toy. Look, this is what works for us here on Timmers Lane. You do you, Smith family! Whatever works for you as a family.
We have taken her to restaurants since she left the hospital. She sits, chats, eats. She’s 4 now and enjoys going out to eat. At home, we have a bad-ish habit as a family. We have dinner in front of the tv. We are not perfect, I’ve mentioned that a couple of lines prior. We don’t overeat because of the tv, sometimes we do because the food is too good, but we chat, well, Sophia chats, narrates the shows. If that’s even possible, she talks more than I do.
Her quality time with daddy involves trips to the 40, tinkering on things, spending time outside. I am thinking hunting is on the horizon. Quality time with mommy consists of having lunch at our favorite spots, trips to HomeGoods to search for cake stands but 80% is kitchen. We cook a lot as a team. We do some playing at the shop.
She knows where every utensil is in the kitchen, she knows which one is the pot we always make rice on, she knows what frying pan fries what. She uses a real knife to help me chop mushrooms, carrots, celery. She loves peeling garlic. I’ve taught her she needs to hold the handles on the pots if she’s stirring something so the pot doesn’t slide across the cooktop. She’s been cooking with me for 3 years and she will tell me if something needs salt.
Her favorite breakfast thing is what she calls cheesy eggs. She will tell me what she needs from the fridge, which thank goodness, she can’t open yet. Eggs, milk, parmesan. Scrambled eggs with a touch of milk, and a sprinkle of parmesan once done. She will eat that every morning if we allow her.
Right now we are working on efficiently cracking an egg. She can crack them, but she crushes them, which leaves mommy scrambling for shell pieces for five minutes. The next thing I will teach her is how to turn the cooktop on. She will only be allowed to turn one burner on, the smallest and farthest from her belly.
She’s cut her finger here and there, and when she does she immediately asks me for salt. I dump some salt on her hand and she sticks the cut into the salt and goes “Chefs cut themselves sometimes. Right, mommy?”. That’s our comforting phrase. I’ve told her I’ve cut myself multiple times. She knows there are risks and she knows what to do to prevent bad things from happening. It helps that she is like me, a scared cat and not a dare devil. She’s very cautious.
I never force her to help. Sometimes actually I wish that she preferred Daniel Tiger to her stool by me. Sometimes I just wished dinner was ready in 15 minutes instead of 45. But then I look into that sweet little face. I am so honored that she loves sharing that space with me. I love that we share a love for cooking and the kitchen.
Here’s the thing. It can all change. In 10 years from now she might be way too cool to be bossing me around the cheesy eggs recipe. She might not want anything to do with the shop, and cakes, and macarons. What if that happens?
Well, if it does, and she goes off to be a doctor, or a teacher in Kenya… I will always have those memories, and so will she. That’s all we carry around anyways when life takes us places, isn’t it? A mind full of memories? That’s a treasure we can haul anywhere. I am planting a little seed. One day, like me, she might use her cooking or baking skills as a way to connect to people. It can be her escape or her celebratory ritual.
So what am I leaving for Sophia? What’s my legacy to her? The shop? She might not want to deal with the shop. The shop is a material thing that’s here today, but as this pandemic is proving, material things come and go. Feelings and memories stay. That’s what my gift to her is. Let’s see when, and if, she realizes that.
Good time of the year to get back to something that brings me almost as much joy as baking, writing!
Now, you will have to keep in mind that English is my second language, and sometimes I have funny ways of conveying what I am thinking. If you get confused, eat another macaron.
I am not going to write about COVID-19 as we all have plenty of experts in our social media channels disseminating a bunch of misinformation about it. I am not going to add to it as I know jack about it. I am not going to give this virus any more ratings. Let’s just wash our hands, stay home and make it go away.
I want to talk about my childhood, and what I know some about, desserts.
I love it when we hear from clients at the shop that this or that treat remind them of their grandmas, or their moms. Sometimes treats make us think of our past, of places we have been, happiness we didn’t even know we would miss.
We had some wild berries growing in our backyard along the fence. I grew up in a property that spans about 2 acres. It sits right across from the City Council building yet we always had chickens, a pig here and there, sometimes geese, ducks…Always plenty of cats and dogs. It was a zoo and a giant vegetable garden. In the backyard we could find tangerines, oranges, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, acerolas, avocados, lemons, limes, guavas, papayas, all sorts of greens and herbs. But back to these berries!
They were some sort of raspberry… The little drupelets were smaller and firmer. It was not a juicy raspberry. I would pick them and either just pop them in my mouth, swallowing the eventual stink bug that was hiding inside, or I would bring them to my grandma and ask for a “gemada”. A gemada is when you add sugar to yolks and whisk it vigorously and your mixture becomes very pale in color and somewhat fluffy. I would dump the raspberries into it and scarf them down.
We always had plenty of eggs. Here and there we would go throw a laying strike, chickens either died of something or we had too many new girls in the flock. Mostly we had more eggs than we knew what to do with. If my grandma wanted to get really fancy, and the strawberries were plenty, she would whip up a gemada, and some meringue, just French meringue (raw whites and sugar). Then she would layer the macerated strawberries on the bottom of a container, then a layer of gemada, topped with the meringue. All would go into the freezer until somewhat solid. It was the best dessert ever during the summer.
I remember grandma sitting in her covered porch, quartering her strawberries, whipping her meringue by hand in a dinner plate, her whisk was a fork, a little bit of sugar at a time. The gemada she would whip in a coffee cup. That sometimes was my job, but she never trusted me with the meringue.
Nowadays the thought of a bowl of frozen strawberries topped with a bunch of sugar and raw eggs doesn’t necessarily entice me as the best summer dessert ever. Maybe it still is and I have forgotten to enjoy the simple things in life. I have gotten too busy sticking my eggs straight into the refrigerator.
Now all of a sudden I am craving it! Am I longing for the dessert or for the comfort of my grandma’s company? Do I miss picking the berries or do I miss my grandma giving me orders and cussing me out? The truth is I miss all of it.
What do you miss? Whose cooking or baking do you long for? Can you think of something you used to eat when you were little, or not so little, that evokes nostalgia in you, either in your heart or in your belly? I want to hear about it!
Above, my maternal grandparents and I when I was 3ish.
Above, Sophia saying goodbye to bisa (great grandma) On our last trip to Brazil, march 2019.
Hanging out at the beach with the lady who taught me to be a potty mouth but to eat all my veggies. Her name is Sabina.