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Cooking National Dishes

September—Eat Local Month at Willy Street Co-op—provides the perfect backdrop for reflection on some of the important issues facing our collective community. Two pressing issues are food insecurity and community solidarity. These should be at the forefront of our minds, as a cooperative organization with a community focus. Together we can affect change in our community through sharing meals and sharing stories. With that in mind, we’ll explore some national dishes common to local Madison communities. We’ll create dishes featuring delicious local and seasonal ingredients with a focus on Madison’s diverse culinary offerings.

Madison is a city rich in culinary diversity and personal food narratives. No matter where you are or where you’re from, food brings people together. My personal food narrative consists of a hodgepodge of the cultures I’ve experienced and begins in the American South. Growing up, meals in my family were always a grand production. Children and adults alike participated in acquiring ingredients, meal prep, setting the table, cooking, and cleanup. It was a consistent part of everyday life. It made sitting down over the completed meal together a cooperative labor of love. Now, more than ever, I realize the importance of being involved in all aspects of the food supply chain. It’s a means to connect with and truly understand the amount of coordination that goes into obtaining the food that sustains us. That sensational connection to food and community can’t be replaced, but it can be learned and shared. With that in mind, I’m sharing some dishes that helped shaped my personal food narrative, in the hopes that you’ll share some of your own in your community.

Soul Food
After spending any amount of time in the American South, most people become quickly acquainted with soul food. Soul food is a term used to describe traditional African-American, typically Southern, cuisine. This genre of culinary tradition is richly steeped in history and local, seasonally available ingredients. Soul food came about as a means to ensure that field slaves had sufficient nutrients to perform strenuous manual labor without using ingredients meant for “the big house.” Thus, soul food is typically high in caloric density and is often meat protein-heavy.

One of my favorite dishes that can be prepared with or without animal products is grits. Grits are a traditional Southern dish made of stone ground hominy corn that’s been laboriously ground but leaves the outer germ coating intact. The possible variations on grits are limitless, from garlic, cheese, and scallions, to sugar and butter. The one thing to note about deciding to prepare traditional grits is that it is a slow process. There are quick-cooking grits and instant cooking grits in addition to standard grits. As far as I’m concerned, traditional, slow-cooking grits are heads and tails above the other options in flavor. Slow-cooking grits are well worth the effort and the wait. Try the savory recipe below and see if you and your family agree.

Creamy Stone-Ground Grits
Adapted from Farm to Fork:
Cooking Local, Cooking Fresh by Emeril Lagasse
3 cups water
3 cups whole milk OR water OR alternative milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 Tbs. butter
3/4 cup stone ground grits
8 oz. white cheddar cheese grated (about 2 cups)
Directions: Combine the water, milk, salt, pepper, and 1 Tbs. of the butter in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Whisk in the grits. Cook and stir frequently, for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until  they are creamy and tender throughout. (Stir often so that the grits do not stick to the bottom of the pan. Add hot water as needed to thin them out until they reach the desired consistency.)

Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in remaining Tbs. of butter and the cheese. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

For a savory meat addition, the options are again, limitless. Grits are often paired with shrimp, fried catfish, sausage, and various other rich options. This recipe calls for shrimp and andouille sausage but can handle any substitute you throw at it, including tofu or tempeh. Enjoy with whatever additions or subtractions you like and save any leftover for simple stove-top or microwave reheating for another delicious combination of your choosing.

Smothered Shrimp & Andouille over Stone-Ground Grits
Adapted from Farm to Fork: Cooking Local, Cooking Fresh by Emeril Lagasse
1 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. butter
3 lb. large (21-25 count) head on shrimp, peeled and deveined (heads and shells reserved for making stock)
1 Tbs. sweet paprika
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
6 ounces andouille or other smoked sausage, cut into small dice (about 1 cup)
1 cup diced onions (small dice)
1 Tbs. minced garlic
2 Tbs. minced shallot
1 Tbs. minced green onion bottoms (white part)
2 cups chopped vine-ripened tomatoes
1 cup shrimp stock, chicken stock, or vegetable stock
1/3 cup sour cream
2 Tbs. minced green onion tops (green part)
Creamy Stone-Ground Grits
2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley leaves
Directions: Place a 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. After oil is hot, add 1 Tbs. of the butter to the pan. Season the shrimp with the paprika, salt, and cayenne. Add to the pan and sear them for 1 1/2 minutes per side. Put the shrimp on a plate and set it aside.

Add the remaining butter to the sauté pan. Add the Andouille when the butter has melted. Cook, stirring often, until the andouille is crispy. Add the onions and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic, shallot, and green onion bottoms, and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook for 1 minute. Turn heat up high and add the shrimp stock, and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the sour cream and stir to combine.

Fold shrimp into the sauce in the sauté pan. Cook until they are cooked through and hot. Stir in the green onion tops. Spoon the shrimp and sauce over the hot grits, garnish with the parsley, and serve while hot. Makes 4 entrée servings or 6 appetizer servings.

Hmong cuisine
Another sensational culinary style that Madison has to offer is Hmong cuisine. Many Hmong clans came to Madison after the Vietnam War. During the war, the CIA recruited Hmong citizens to the U.S. army in secrecy. Many were pilots themselves or were responsible for saving the lives of American pilots who were shot down over Laos. After the U.S. pulled out of the war, we left the country and we left those citizens living under the rule of the same Communist forces they had been fighting on behalf of the U.S. Many families had no choice but to flee, some on foot. Years later, some of those clans were relocated to the U.S. and France. For this reason, Madison and Minnesota both have thriving Hmong and Laotian communities. Not surprisingly, this culinary style draws from many other national dishes and can be made to suit any dietary preferences. Traditionally, the focus is on fresh and flavorful ingredients and we won’t stray far from that in our cooking. The soup that we’ll learn to prepare can be made with or without meat, simply substitute meat for tofu, tempeh, or extra vegetables. Either way, I recommend enjoying the soup with vibrant sticky forbidden rice and with a friend.

Laotian Catfish Soup
Adapted from the New York Times Cooking
1 1/2 lb. catfish fillets
12 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
3 to 4 Thai chilies, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
1 4-inch piece fresh lemongrass, thinly sliced
1/4 fresh mint
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 Tbs. peanut or vegetable oil
1 quart chicken broth or vegetable broth
2 Tbs. fresh limejuice
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
1 can (about 14 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
6 Tbs. fish sauce
2 Tbs. finely chopped fresh basil leaves
2 Tbs. finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp. salt (more, if desired)
1 tsp. crushed peppercorn
Cooked jasmine rice or forbidden/sticky purple rice (optional)
Directions: Cut the catfish fillets into strips about 1 inch long by 1/2 inch wide. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Sauté the garlic, chilies, lemongrass and shallots in the oil in a deep skillet over medium heat until very fragrant. Add the chicken or vegetable broth and the lime juice. Heat the mixture to a slow simmer.

Whisk the peanut butter and 2 Tbs. of the coconut milk in a small bowl until blended and then whisk it into the garlic mixture. Stir in the fish and remaining coconut milk and simmer until the fish layers separate when prodded with a fork, about 2 minutes. Stir in fish sauce, basil, mint and cilantro and simmer 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, with rice if desired. Makes 4-6 servings.

For a sweet sensation, one that is often enjoyed in neighboring Minnesota’s Hmongtown Marketplace, my go-to is bubble tea. Also known as boba tea, this sweet treat can be made with numerous variations, with the common theme being tea and milk. Bubble tea has become a popular offering at Asian fusion restaurants and juice bars. There are slight differences between typical bubble milk tea and Hmong-style bubble tea. There typically isn’t a sweet fruit mixed with milk in traditional Hmong-style bubble tea. Blended fruit or juice may be added, but the flavor profile is distinctly different. This recipe blends the traditional and the new with avocado as the base fruit and the unlikely hero of the drink. Fortunately, it still imparts the delicious sweetness one might expect from bubble tea.  Enjoy this sweet and savory mélange with homemade tapioca pearls, or bubbles, or with store bought pearls, depending on your timeline. Either way, you’ll need a pretty big straw. Be sure to monitor children as they drink because these slippery bubbles can be a choking hazard.

Avocado Bubble Tea
Adapted from
1 large ripe Haas avocado, mashed or thinly sliced
1 cup tea (typically green or black work well)
6 ice cubes
1 Tbs. honey OR simple syrup OR mashed banana
2 Tbs. sweetened condensed milk OR coconut milk
1/4 cup whole milk OR vanilla soy OR almond milk (more, if needed)
1/4 cup pearl tapioca (recipe to follow or purchased)
Directions: Prepare tapioca according to package directions or at home in advance, set aside.

Add avocado, cooled tea, ice cubes, honey OR simple syrup OR mashed banana, condensed milk OR coconut milk, whole milk OR vanilla soy OR almond milk to blender or food processor. Cover and blend until smooth. Add more milk or ice if too thick.

In a chilled glass, put the tapioca at the bottom and pour the blended tea over it. Enjoy through a wide straw. Makes approximately 4-6 servings.

Tapioca Pearls
Adapted from
3 Tbs. tapioca flour
1-3 Tbs. BOILING* water (enough to cover the bottom of the pan completely)
3 additional cups water
1 cup brown sugar
Directions: Add enough water to a saucepan to cover the bottom of the pan and bring to a boil.

Add tapioca flour to a bowl, (ideally stainless steel or glass). Have your measuring implement in hand. Fill it with the water on the boil and immediately add it to the flour. Quickly mix it together with a spoon until it starts to form a ball. **Continue mixing and kneading with your hands until it reaches a play-doh like consistency.
Add the brown sugar to the boiling water, stirring until it is dissolved. Set about a quarter of this aside in a separate bowl and allow them to cool in the fridge. This will be used for our pearls once cooked.

Form your dough into balls that are slightly larger thana pea, about 5mm thick.

***Roll the balls until they form a relatively uniform ball shape.
Keep going until you use up all of your mix. Add the balls to the boiling water and sugar. They will sink, then rise and puff up.

Check the pearls at regular intervals, around every 5 minutes. Continuously stir the pearls, especially when cooking in sugar, as it will thicken and you’ll lose water content.

****Once they’re cooked a bit longer than to your preference, spoon them into your reserved sugar syrup, place them in the fridge and allow them to cool.

*The water needs to be boiling because it won’t form the right consistency with just hot or cold water. It will just turn into a shapeless sloppy mess

**Tapioca flour is gluten-free, so there’s no way you’ll over work the dough—it’s fun and non-toxic, so once it’s cool, little ones may enjoy getting involved. You can also add food coloring during the kneading process, if desired.

***If your dough starts to feel dry or “crusty” on the outside simply knead it until it feels smooth and slightly sticky to the touch. If the dough feels too sticky to work with sprinkle a little tapioca flour onto your work surface.

**** It’s important that they feel slightly over cooked from your desired texture. This is because the pearls will firm up as they get cooler. Generally, your pearls will be done when you see air bubbles throughout the whole ball.

Mexican cuisine
Madison’s Mexican culinary options are extensive, and for good reason. On a hot summer night, there’s nothing like a cool glass of spiced horchata, or rice milk. This delicious drink varies in flavor and name, based on region and historical lore. The recipe we’ll be using is decidedly inspired by the Mexican variety, but can be made with any variations you prefer. One story of its origin claims that when Spanish Conquistador James I of Aragon visited the town Alboraria and sampled the sweet nectar for the first time, he proclaimed “Açò és or, xata!” (“That’s gold, darling!”). This is just one of the many legendary tales of the origins of this delicious beverage. When the drink was introduced to Mexico, it became its own unique tradition. The version we’ll prepare has the signature Ceylon cinnamon that makes it even more delectable and specific to Mexican tradition. Horchata is best served chilled and in good company.

Mexican Style Horchata
Adapted from
6 Tbs. uncooked, long-grain white rice
1 tsp. ground Ceylon cinnamon
1 dash ground cloves
1 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup evaporated milk or coconut milk
1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk or coconut cream
1/2 cup sugar
5 cups water
Directions: Let the rice soak in water to soften for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours.
Add all other ingredients with rice and water to blender. Blend mixture until it’s completely smooth and there are no rice pieces. Check for consistency and flavor, and adjust as needed.

Stir before drinking, and enjoy! Servings vary, 4-6.

On the savory side, rice and bean variations are innumerable. While rice and beans are staple foods throughout many countries and cultures, they are mainstays in the Mexican culinary style of cooking. They can be added to any entrée as a side or served as the meal’s main attraction. Rice provides energy in the form of carbohydrates and beans provide an efficient delivery of protein. It’s no wonder these two dishes are prevalent throughout many culinary styles. In this recipe we’ll combine the two to make arroz rojo, or red rice. This rice dish is a delicious addition to any meal plan, desde el desayuno hasta la cena, from breakfast to dinner.

Arroz Rojo Mexicano
Adapted from
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small poblano pepper or green pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. kosher or fine sea salt
1/2 tsp. coarse ground peppercorn
2 Tbs. fresh chopped oregano
2 Tbs. fresh chopped cilantro
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. paprika
1 cup basmati rice
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1 (14-ounce) can pinto OR black beans, rinsed and drained
2 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
Directions: In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, poblano pepper and garlic, sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add rice. Cook, stirring occasionally, until rice is completely coated in oil, about 2 minutes. Season with cumin, chili powder, oregano, paprika, and salt and pepper.

Add tomato paste, cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and beans. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat, add cilantro and oregano. Keep covered, and let stand for at least 5 minutes. Fluff with fork. Makes 4 servings.

Tips & Tricks
Now that we’ve tried our hand at making these national dishes, the next step is to go forth and share. Here are some handy tips when preparing, sharing, and enjoying these dishes:

  1. Each Palate is Unique: Many of these dishes vary based on personal preference. So, try not to get too hung up on the logistics and really try to cook with your senses. If it smells good, that’s a good indicator for how it will taste, and vice versa. Try getting a second opinion on the dish’s flavor profile if you have any doubts.
  2. Oral Tradition in Cooking: Cooking with friends and family is a great way to share your new knowledge about these culinary styles and to learn from others. Oral tradition is a large part of how recipes and cooking techniques are passed on. This is especially true for these types of cooking that have come to be staples here because of people sharing and teaching their recipes with loved ones. Collaboration is a key concept in cooking.
  3. Tradition is Great: Innovation is Great: Tradition is the foundation of these styles, so understanding them is a great way to learn how to innovate in the kitchen. Don’t be afraid to play around, try new things, and fuse concepts together. You may find that you’ve created a new dish of your own that is equally worth sharing.
  4. Have Fun: Cooking should be enjoyable, and while it can be tedious, the fruits of your labor are usually well worth the effort. If you enjoyed cooking these dishes, chances are you’ll enjoy eating and sharing them.

These national dishes, from communities right here in Madison, are just a small sampling of what makes up the melting pot, for which the U.S. is known. Sharing your own food narrative and listening to those of others in your community is one way for our community to move closer to the salad bowl model in which we contentedly co-exist and maybe even rub off on each other a bit. Digging into your own culinary cultural history can help prepare you to teach others and, at the same time, prime you for learning from others. With that being said, go, cook, eat, share and be merry.

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