This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on December 28, 2005
Another year’s end, accompanied by that familiar, heady combination of fizzing anticipation for the fresh, untrammeled days ahead, laced with mellow, sweet nostalgia for those long gone. If there is ever a time for maudlin sentimentality, this would be it and, as always, I am just the one to wallow in it.
The particular memory lane I am wandering this year is a culinary one, triggered by the closing of a favorite restaurant – Tortilla Flat. I know the owner, Becky Wann, felt beleaguered by the unceasing demands of the restaurant business and eager to launch a new career in real estate. Still, I’ll miss her eggplant burritos and ummm, that incredible Chile con Queso. No gluey processed cheese at Tortilla Flat, her queso dip was spicy, creamy, rich, coating the chip and dripping long stretchy strands of cheese. On cold winter nights it was a warm and melting bowl of comfort.
Another Bloomington restaurant I still actively mourn is the Tao. The Tao started life in the 1970s as a small box of a place run by a local Ashram, producing mostly breakfast-type food and a style of cooking I always think of as “hippie vegetarian” – hearty, heavy, and frequently more well-meaning than delicious. The Ashram members were well-meaning too, but often more caught up in their own progress toward enlightenment than in getting me my breakfast. I remember once ordering a mushroom omelet, only to have it arrive sans mushrooms. My attempts to send it back were met with the vacant, otherworldly stare of my server, who refused to return it to the kitchen on the grounds that I had already cut into it. To this day I can remember his absolute imperviousness to the logical argument that only by cutting into it could I have discovered that there were no mushrooms. I am usually relentless in my pursuit of culinary satisfaction, but this time I just gave up and ate my eggs.
But the Tao grew up, as we all did, and eventually became a wonderful restaurant with an even more wonderful bakery attached. Among the things I miss (and there are many) is the Tao’s salad dressing – creamy, light green, full of herbs. The old Tao of Cooking cookbook is still available used on Amazon and has many of the restaurant’s best recipes.
I also remember the Nutcracker Sweet, on Dunkirk Square with fabulous fresh strawberry lemonade, and the short-lived Middle Earth, right behind it, with Hobbit burgers and Elfin fries, and the Fireside, where my dad would take me to when he came to visit. The names come back to me as I write: Jeremiah Sweeneys, Butterfield’s, Peddlers, Poor Richards, the Cork and Cleaver, Banditos, Sully’s, Zeus’ Gyros, Porticos, Wimples on Walnut, The Gold Rush, Pancho’s, Pagliai’s Pizza, The Wok, Leung Cheung. All an integral part of the Bloomington community once, but barely remembered now.
Among the dishes I have craved over the years is the Greek Spaghetti that I used to eat in my undergraduate days at the beautiful Gables on Indiana (once the old Book Nook of Hoagy Carmichael fame.) I have no idea what other food the Gables served, because I only ordered the one dish – a heaping plate of hot pasta tossed with a buttery sauce flecked with toasty bits of salty cheese, the scent of cinnamon wafting up.
When it comes right down to it, one cannot survive on memories alone. A plea to the longtime Bloomington restaurateur and former Gables-owner, S.G. Stratigos (aka Strats) secured the recipe, and I am eating Greek spaghetti just the way I remember doing 25 years ago. It’s hard to be maudlin with your mouth full. Cheers to all, and happy New Year!
Tortilla Flat’s Chile con Queso
Courtesy of Becky Wann
1/2 pound white cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 pound Monterey jack cheese, shredded
1/2 cup diced onion or chopped scallion
1 cup seeded, diced tomato (about 2 medium)
Pickled jalapeno peppers, chopped, to taste
1 heaping tablespoon sour cream
Combine ingredients in a bowl. Heat it in the microwave for a few minutes, stir it, then heat it for another minute, until it is bubbling. Be careful not to cook too long, or it will boil all over your microwave. Serve with tortilla chips.
The Gables’ Greek Spaghetti
Courtesy of S.G. Stratigos
Here’s what Strats says: “Brown but do not burn a good butter, add grated mizithra to a creamy consistency, and add cinnamon. Mix sauce into pasta before serving. That’s it.”
That will get you there deliciously, but if you crave more specificity, try this:
2 sticks of butter (you can get by with less if this scares you, but this amount is best)
5/8 to 1/2 lb. mizithra cheese (a salty Greek sheep’s cheese, available
at most area grocery stores), grated
Dash of cinnamon, to taste
1 lb. spaghetti or linguini
Cook the pasta according to package directions.
While the pasta cooks, brown the butter in a large sauce pan. When it is a nutty brown (but not burned!) add the grated cheese. Strats says it becomes creamy, but in my experience the cheese doesn’t really melt, just stays a little flakey and turns a toasty brown in bits. Add a dash of cinnamon to taste (about 1/8 teaspoon.) Do not salt this sauce as the cheese itself is very salty.
Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce. That’s it!
From Sally Pasley, “The Tao Of Cooking,”Ten Speed Press, 1982.
5/8 cup mayonnaise
5/8 cup yogurt
1 1/2 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/8 teaspoon salt
Pinch black pepper
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
1/8 teaspoon basil
1/8 teaspoon dill weed
3 or 4 spinach leaves
2/3 cup salad oil
Combine all ingredients except salad oil in a blender and puree until smooth. Turn blender on low speed. While motor is still running, slowly pour in oil, in a thin stream. When all the oil has been absorbed, turn blender on high speed and blend for a few more seconds to thicken.