Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Goodbye Amore Coffee

One of my favorite neighborhood coffee shops is closing today.  Amore Coffee on Grand Avenue is a lovely little coffee shop, with fair-trade coffee, yummy food, and a pleasant atmosphere.  It was my go-to coffee shop to study with friends for law school finals and to have panic attacks during the bar exam.  The people who work there are friendly, the owner seemed to know everybody who walked in those doors, and they had a little bowl full of dog treats for their four-legged patrons.  Plus they played awesome music straight from the barista's iPod playlist!  In short, Amore was the best and quite possibly the only independent coffee shop in my Grand Avenue neighborhood, and now it's leaving.  I'm so sad to see it go.

(Image from Amore's website)
I never thought I would turn into one of those St. Paul peeps who scowl at the presence of chain restaurants and stores, but apparently I did!  While Anthropologie is great, it's too bad that the property owner basically forced Amore out of its space to make room for this store.  So support our local foodie businesses and visit the other Amore location in West St. Paul.  I promise you won't be disappointed.  And try the quiche.  It's delicious!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Baking Bread - It's Not Just for the Pioneers

There's nothing quite like the smell of bread baking in the oven.  The aroma wafting around your apartment will make your mouth, and your neighbor's mouth, water.  There are some pretty decent packaged breads and a handful of bakeries around here that also make a tasty loaf, but I decided I wanted to bake me some bread and one Saturday morning I got to it. 

I pulled my recipe from Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everybody" - a veritable encyclopedia of vegetarian recipes and helpful tips.  But even if you don't eat all veggie, it's still a great resource for anyone who likes to make food.  If you don't believe me, check it out from the library first.  (Did you know you can do that?)  It won't be long before you're off to the store to get your own copy because you kept spilling flour all over the library copy.......

Anyway!  Baking bread is pretty simple.  But it takes time, patience, and an attention to details.  I have a hard time with baking because I'm not a fan of the details.  I don't like to measure my ingredients and I often make last-minute substitutions when cooking (all recipes taste better with a splash of wine, right?).  But armed with a full pot of coffee, I thought I could do it.  Oh did I mention that this recipe is also the starter for homemade cinnamon rolls?  Now get to baking!

1 package active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
1/2 tsp sugar
1 cup warm milk
1 tbls honey*
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 tsp salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
3-4 cups bread flour

In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup of the warm water with the yeast package.  Add the sugar and let the mixture sit until it gets foamy, about 10 minutes.  It's called "proofing" the yeast.  If the mixture doesn't foam up after 10 minutes or so, then the yeast is bad and you'll have to start over with a new package. 

In a large bowl, combine the milk, remaining water (1 cup), honey, oil and salt, and then stir in your proofed yeast.  Using a wooden spoon, or the paddle attachment of your fancy Kitchen Aid mixer, stir in the flours one cup at a time until you have a shaggy dough that pulls away from the side of the bowl.  It should look a little something like this:

it's pretty, right?
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and put the flour that you didn't use in the previous step near your dough.  Now comes the kneading process.  Knead the remaining flour into the dough a little at a time until it is smooth and tacky, but not wet.  If you don't use all of the flour, that's totally fine.  You knead the dough by grabbing the portion furthest away from you and pulling it over the bulk of the dough, basically folding it in half.  Then press the grabbed portion into the dough, pressing away from you.  Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat for about 5-8 minutes.  Your dough should now look something like this:

notice all of the flour?  it's a fun but messy task.
Place the dough in a well-oiled bowl and turn the dough around in the bowl to make sure it's coated with oil as well.  Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and set it in a warm spot in your kitchen to rise for about an hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Quick Tip: If your bread is not rising but your yeast proofed, then your kitchen may be too cold.  Turn on your oven for 10 minutes, then turn it off and place the bowl with the dough inside the oven.  That should get 'er going.  If it still doesn't rise, the water or milk may have been too hot and you'll have to try again.

Press down on the dough to deflate it, then divide into two equal pieces.  Form those pieces into two balls, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes.
Quick Tip: If you only want to make one loaf and want to save half of this recipe for, say, CINNAMON ROLLS, then place one of the dough balls in a well-oiled bowl, cover, and refrigerate.  The dough will keep there until the next morning.  Just take it out and allow it some time to come to room temperature.  Then let it rise again, according to the rest of these instructions.

Oil your bread pan(s).  Flatten your rested dough into a pan-shaped rectangle.  Roll up the rectangle tightly and press the seam together.  Place the dough seam-side down in the pan and allow it to rise for another 35 minutes, or until the dough rises just above the top of the pan.  In the interest of full disclosure, my dough never reached the top of my bread pan but I baked it anyway.  Still turned out pretty good!

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.  Bake until the bread is browned on top and pulls away from the side of the pan.  It should take 40-45 minutes.  Turn the bread out onto a cooling rack and tap the bottom.  It should sound hollow. 

tasty bread in a messy kitchen!

Very important step!  You MUST try a slice of your homemade bread right away.  Bread is never as tasty as it is warm from the oven and coated with butter.  (Another great topping from my college days: peanut butter and honey.)  This bread is light, sweet, and delightful.  Congratulations -- you just made your own homemade bread!  You now have some serious bragging rights. 

*Food Tip: If you have to measure honey, first spray the measuring cup or spoon with some cooking spray.  Then when you want to pour the honey into your mixture, it comes out nice and clean without any annoying stickiness left.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ruminations on Homemade Vinaigrettes

When spring starts moving in, I start dining on fresher, lighter fare.  Whether that's my subconscious realization that swimsuit season is approaching or some other reaction to the spring weather, the other night all I could think about was eating a delicious salad. 

Homemade vinaigrettes are insanely easy to make and really tasty.   Once you know the basic combinations, it's really easy to play around with the recipe to get the flavors you want.  All you need are these three things: mustard, vinegar, and oil.  Just combine about one tbls of mustard and 1 tbls of vinegar.  Whisk it together with a fork and add some salt and pepper.  Then while you're still whisking, add in the oil slowly until it emulsifies (or comes together).  It'll be about 2-3 tbls. of oil.  This will make you enough dressing for about 2-3 servings, depending on how heavy you like your salad dressed.

Beyond that, you can really add whatever you want!  Garlic, shallots, green onions, herbs, or spices.  You can change up the vinegar and use balsamic, cider, champagne, and you can also add some freshly squeezed fruit juices or flavored oils.  You can even use different bases for the emulsion -- honey mustard, dijon mustard, or even jams and marmalades.  Even honey can work, depending on the taste you're looking for.  Don't be afraid to try out your own combination.  The worst that will happen is you're out 5 minutes and a couple spoonfuls of oil!  Play around with this basic formula you'll be surprised at how easy it is to make your own, amazing dressing. 

Here are two examples to get you started: 

salad with berry vinaigrette

Berry Vinaigrette
1 tbls berry jam or marmalade (I used strawberry)
1 tbls balsamic vinegar
1 shallot, minced
Salt and pepper
~3 tbls extra virgin olive oil

Combine the jam, vinegar, shallot, and salt and pepper in a small bowl.  Then with a fork or small whisk, whisk in the olive oil until it all comes together at the consistency you desire.  3 tbls should be about right.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  If it's too sweet, add a dash of the vinegar or some pepper. 

This dressing goes perfectly with some mixed greens, raspberries, and blue cheese or goat cheese crumbles.  This will make about 2-3 servings.

Mustard Grain Vinaigrette
1 tbls whole grain mustard
1 tbls apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp sugar
1 clove pasted garlic (chop fine with salt or grate using microplane)
1 minced shallot
salt and pepper
2 - 2 1/2 tbls olive oil

Combine all of the ingredients same as in the previous recipe and then whisk in the oil.  This vinaigrette goes very well with a classic green salad.  Throw together some baby spinach leaves, grated carrot, and quarters of hardboiled eggs and you've got yourself a delicious side salad.

The moral of this rumination: don't be scared to make your own dressing!  It's fun and easy.  As I develop more of these I'll post them on my blog.  And feel free to post your own creations here so we can all learn from each other's success!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tomato Curry

My friend Leigh lent me one of her cookbooks called "Moosewood Cookbook" by Mollie Katzen and I instantly fell in love.  The recipes are all vegetarian and the cookbook itself is darling.  It's either all handwritten or in a handwritten-like font, easy to read, with delicious recipes.  I was very excited to cook out of this adorable cookbook.  Around the same time, my parents got me a Le Creuset dutch oven for my birthday -- something I've been lusting after for as long as I've understood the importance of having Le Creuset in your kitchen.  It's an amazing kitchen tool, good for cooking so many things and cooking them well.  I was SO excited to have one!

 I christened my Le Creuset by cooking a tomato curry recipe out of the Moosewood cookbook. It was rich and thick, tangy, and not at all spicy. If you like spicy curry, then you should work with this a little more or try a green curry. But if you're new to curry or are looking for something mellow to eat for dinner, this is for you. I added a few things to the original recipe based on what I had in my own kitchen, and there are a lot of other additions you can put with this to make it your own. It's fantastic over some basmati rice or scooped up with garlic naan (the naan at Target is pretty damn good).

1 tbs. butter or oil
1 1/2 cups finely chopped or grated onion
1 tsp. salt
1 small bell pepper, minced
6 medium tomatoes, peeled and seeded (see below)
2 cups tomato puree
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp mustard seeds (but not yellow mustard seeds)
2 tsp grated ginger*
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp cayenna, more to taste
1/2 tsp garam masala (optional)
1/2 tsp dried coriander (optional)

In order to peel and seed the tomatoes, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Immerse the tomatoes in the water for about 10 seconds and remove them.  The skins should peel right off,.  Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze them over a garbage can or the sink in order to seed them.  Roughly chop them and you're ready to proceed.
Melt butter or heat oil in a dutch oven (or large pot if you don't have a dutch oven).  Add onion, salt, and mustard seeks.  Saute over medium heat for 8-10 minutes or until the onions soften and the mustard seeds begin to pop.  (Cooking time will be shorter if using grated onion.)  Add ginger, garlic, and bell pepper, cook another 5 minutes.  Add remaning ingredients and mix well.  Heat until boiling, stirring frequently.  Turn the heat to low and simmer covered for 15-20 minutes.  Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve over rice or with naan.  Add some chopped cilantro or some extra firm tofu.

Makes 3-4 servings and leftovers keep well in the fridge.

*Food Tip: Ginger is one of those ingredients that I infrequently use so I never have it on hand when I need it.  Now I buy a big chunk of ginger at the store and break it up into managable pieces at home.  I put the pieces in a freezer bag and freeze it.  Then whenever I need some ginger, I take out the right size, peel it, and grate it.  You'll always have ginger when you need it!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Peanut Butter Chili

Today was one of those days in Minnesota where you realize that Mother Nature hates you and wants to see you suffer.  We've had a very snowy winter and everyone thought we were finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Then another round of snow came today and shocked us back into reality!  With the snowy, March weather I wanted something warm and comforting for dinner.  Because I went to the gym after work, I wanted that dinner fast!  Thankfully I had some chili in my freezer leftover from my Superbowl party this year. 

This chili is amazing.  Even my friend Lauren who hates chili tried a bowl at my Superbowl party and actually liked it!  This recipe is adapted from the Serious Eats website mostly so I could throw everything in a slow cooker the morning of the game and let it simmer until kickoff.  It's thick, spicy, and the hint of peanut taste is oddly satisfying.  The peanut butter is not overwhelming, but it adds a little something extra to your traditional chili.  This is the perfect dinner treat for the big game or out of the freezer on an unexpected snow day.

Olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped fine or grated (keep pulp and juice if grated)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 14.5-oz cans diced tomatoes
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp chili powder
2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 12-oz can tomato paste
2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup smooth, unsweetened peanut butter
1 15-oz can kidney beans, rinsed
1 15-oz can black beans, rinsed
1 15-oz can chili beans (kidney beans in a chili sauce), drained
1 15-oz can white beans, rinsed
1 15-oz can sweet corn, drained
Salt & Pepper

Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a skillet.  Saute the onions until translucent, about 5 minutes (if you're using grated onions it'll cook a little faster).  Add the garlic and saute another two minutes.  I did this first because I wanted to break down the onions/garlic even more, but it's not necessary -- you can just throw these ingredients raw right into the slow cooker.

Turn on a large slow cooker and add the cooked onions and garlic.  Add all of the other ingredients and stir to combine the tomato paste and peanut butter.  Omit some of the beans if you don't have the space in your slow cooker!  Heat on low or medium if you're going to cook it during the day -- 5-6 hours.  Heat on high if you have 2-3 hours.

Top with your favorite chili toppings -- scallions, sour cream, or cheese.  And to round out the meal you can serve over rice or with tortilla chips.  Leftovers keep very well in the freezer!
Makes about 6-8 servings.

** If you want to serve this in a more timely fashion, saute the onions and garlic as directed above in a large stockpot.  Then add the diced tomatoes and spices and cook for a few minutes.  Add tomato paste, stock, and peanut butter, stir and then simmer for 10 minutes.  Add the remaining ingredients (beans and corn), reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.  Serve as directed above.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Veggies Pretending to be Meat -- Smart Ground

I was talking with my friend Leigh the other day about the food she would miss most if she cut meat out of her diet, and the foods I did miss most because I am a veggie-only eater.  My immediate response: ground beef tacos.  I could easily rid myself of all fond meat memories (with the exception of maybe a hot dog during a baseball game...which inspires both fond memories and a gag reflex) but nothing will ever replace the ground beef taco.  Once after college I had some sort of life-changing event and for the next two weeks I could eat nothing but tacos.  Breakfast.  Lunch.  Dinner.  I never got sick of them. 

Rice and beans are a delicious replacement for this weakness of mine, but I wanted to try out one of the many meat substitutes on the market to see if something could fill this little void in my heart.  Some meat substitutes are great, others are just plain gross, so I went into this dinner hopeful, but with low expectations.  Leigh recommend Smart Ground, which sells itself as being "veggie protein crumbles."  Questionable, right?  I got the "Mexican" variety, hoping that the seasoned crumbles would work a miracle in my kitchen. 

Smart Ground® Mexican

I put together my favorite taco additions -- lettuce, tomato, cheese, avocado -- and cooked these protein crumbles according to the package directions.  My first thought was that this could be good!  When cooked up, Smart Ground looks very similar to ground beef.  I created a taco and took a bite.  Not bad....but not exactly the most flavorful creation I've ever made.  Whoever thought this constituted "Mexican seasoning" clearly doesn't understand the concept.  So I returned the crumbles to the pan, added some water and my favorite taco seasoning, and cooked it up again.  Result?  Much better!  The crumbles had a slight veggie aftertaste but the additional taco seasoning really perked up the flavor.  And while it was lacking in some of the substance that ground beef has, overall Smart Ground was a pretty solid substitution!

Do I think Chipotle will be serving this anytime soon?  Nope.  Would I pit these crumbles up against a traditional ground beef taco?  Perhaps!  Am I going to make this again?  For sure.  If you are a vegetarian, a person sympathetic to a veggie-only diet, or someone who is just interested in checking out some of the meat substitutes on the market, this is a fine place to start. 

As an aside, I checked out the company's website and was impressed by its mission, attitude, and efforts to be a sustainable and planet-friendly operation.  I appreciate vegetarian sources that suggest starting small, by reducing weekly meat consumption or getting on the "Meatless Monday" bandwagon.  These small changes to our daily diets can have such a positive impact on our health and the health of our planet.  That bandwagon is a great place to be.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Food for St. Patrick!

Ah St. Patrick's Day.  The time of year when all great things collide: March Madness, spring, the ability to wear all green without looking stupid, and drinking beer during the day without being judged.  I'm not Irish -- far from it actually.  I'm German, French, and some crazy mix of Scandinavian heritage.  All of those backgrounds come with some pretty excellent food traditions, but I wanted to try out some Irish recipes on this St. Paddy's day.  It was hard to find veggie friendly recipes -- the Irish love their beef stews and lamb.  Who can blame them, really?  So I settled on two comfort foods: Potato & Leek Soup and Irish Soda Bread.  Both of these recipes are from Cooks Illustrated with slight adaptations based on my own cooking experience (failures). 

Potato & Leek Soup
This soup turned out great -- thick and creamy without being overly heavy.  The bread addition to the recipe is key for making that happen.  And while I think the first step of making a "leek stock" really added a lot to the soup, it could probably be omitted for time and energy's sake and you'd still have a really great and tasty potato leek soup!

4 medium leeks, white & light green parts halved lengthwise, washed, and sliced thin; dark green parts halved, washed, and cut into 2-inch pieces (keep them separate and wash the dark green parts very well)
2 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
4 tbls unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 medium onion, chopped (about a cup of onion total -- I used a half of an onion)
1 small russet potato peeled, halved, and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme or tarragon
1 large slice sandwich bread, lightly toasted and torn into 1/2 in pieces
Salt & pepper

Bring dark green leek pieces, stock, and water to boil in large saucepan.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Strain through a fine mesh strainer, press on the leek pieces to get all of the stock out of the veggies.  Discard the leek pieces and set the broth aside.  Rinse out the pan.

Melt the butter in the now-empty sauce pan over medium low heat.  When butter foams, stir in white/light green leek pieces, onion, and 1 tsp salt.  Reduce heat to low, stir frequently and cook until veggies are softened -- about 10 minutes.  Increase heat to high, stir in reserved broth, potato, bay leaf, and herb sprig and bring to boil.  Reduce heat to low and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.  Add toasted bread pieces and simmer until bread is saturated and starts to break down -- about another 5 minutes.

Remove and discard bay leaf and herb sprig (the leaves should have fallen off).  Transfer soup to blender in batches and process until smooth and creamy.  If necessary, strain soup through a fine mesh strainer to get any veggies that did not break down during cooking. 

Season with salt and pepper to taste, top with croutons or bacon if you prefer, and enjoy!
Makes 4 servings.

Irish Soda Bread
This bread is rustic and hearty -- a perfect complement to the potato and leek soup.  It's crunchy on the outside but ridiculously soft on the inside.  It's crazy easy to make and it also keeps for a while.  Wrap the leftovers in plastic and enjoy at your leisure.

3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup cake or pastry flour (you can use 4 cups of all purpose I'm sure -- it will just be a little heavier)
2 tbls sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 tbls unsalted butter (2 tbls softened and 1 tbls melted -- keep separate)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk*

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Whisk flours, sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt in large bowl.  Work softened butter into mixture with fork or fingertips until mixture looks like crumbs, or until you can't see any big chunks of butter.

Add buttermilk and stir with fork until dough just comes together.  Turn out onto flour-coated surface.  Knead dough until it becomes cohesive and bumpy.  Don't knead until it becomes smooth -- you'll have a tough bread!  Just work it until most of the flour is incorporated into the dough.

Pat dough into a 6 inch round.  Place on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or sprayed with non-stick spray.  (Bake in a cast-iron skillet for a crunchier bread.)  Cut a big "X" into the top of the bread.  Bake for about 40-45 minutes or until a knife in the center comes out clean.  Brush with melted butter and let the bread rest for 20 minutes.  Eat and enjoy.

*Food Tip: If you don't have buttermilk you can just "clobber" regular milk with an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar.  For every cup of milk, add 1 tbls of the acid.  I had to do that with this recipe because Whole Foods doesn't sell buttermilk.  (What?!)  So for the 1 1/2 cups of milk, I added 1 1/2 tbls of vinegar and let it sit for about 10 minutes before adding it to the dry ingredients.  It will curdle the milk a bit, which is fine, and you'll get the same outcome as regular buttermilk.  It'll be slightly less creamy, but it works in a pinch!

Ruby says "Happy St. Patrick's Day!"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Veggie Pot Pie

I realized a majority of this blog was about restaurants I've been to and I haven't been cooking as much as I usually do.  So I checked out some of my favorite food sources and found a delightful little veggie pot pie recipe.  It was the perfect dinner to round out today -- it was one of those days when everything seems a bit off and then when I left work it was cold and rainy (not shocking for a March in Minnesota).  I was certainly in the mood for a hot meal and a nice glass of wine. 

I got this recipe from my fave food blog Big Girls Small Kitchen.  I made a few minor adjustments, but this seems like a good base for you to play around with.  Use some seasonal veggies (and if you get a CSA share, this might be a great place to use up some kohlrabi in the summer) or different spice combos.  But this is some serious comfort food, so get ready to indulge!  The crust is amazingly buttery.... I could have eaten it plain.  The filling is thick and delicious.  Round it all off with a glass of white wine and you're set. 

1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 tbls salt
1 tbls sugar
10 tbls butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1 egg yolk
1-2 tbls water, if needed

Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in the food processor and pulse until combined.  Add the butter and pulse until the mixture looks like crumbs.  Add the egg yolk and combine until the dough forms into a ball in the food processor.  Add water gradually if it's not coming together.  Take it out, form into a disc, and chill for at least an hour before rolling out. 
1/4 cup oil
1 large onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 carrot, diced
2 parsnips, diced
1 small potato, diced (I used a large one and just cut it in half)
1/2 fennel bulb, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbls chopped fresh sage
1 large pinch of dried thyme* (or fresh, I only had dried)
curry powder to taste (1 - 1 1/2 tsp)
1 can drained chickpeas
2 1/2 tbls flour
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
salt, pepper

In a cast iron skillet, heat the oil and then add the onions.  Cook for a few minutes until the onions have just started to brown, then add the celery, carrot, fennel, potato, and parsnips.  Cook until the veggies have softened, about 15 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add the garlic and herbs, cook for another minute.  Add in the chickpeas, salt, pepper, and curry powder to taste (I put in a few shakes).  Push the veggies off to the side of the pan, add a drizzle of oil and the flour to the clear side.  (You're making a roux.)  Mix the oil and flour together and cook out the flour taste about a minute.  It should turn into a paste-like consistency.  Mix everything together.  Then add the wine and veggie stock, turn up the heat, and boil the mixture until it thickens.  Turn off the heat.  Put the mixture into a buttered pan, 9x9 or whatever pan you have to make the pot pie.  Cool until about room temperature. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Take the crust dough out of the fridge and roll it out to about 1/4 inch thickness.  It might break in spots, but it's buttery enough to press back together!  Put the crust over the pan and crimp the edges.  (As an aside, my pan was pretty high, so I just laid the crust on top of the mixture and so I just kind of crimped the edges against the sides of the pan.)  Poke holes in the crust and brush with a beaten egg.  Bake for about 35 minutes.  At least, that's what the recipe says -- I ended up baking it for maybe 50 minutes in order to get the crust totally cooked and browned.

And bonus, you have almost an entire bottle of white wine to deal with.  I had tons and tons of leftovers to eat for lunches and give away to people I like.  Enjoy :) 
Makes 8 servings.

*Food Tip: If you use dried herbs, crush them between your fingers before adding them to the mixture to release the flavors.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Burger Jones

Last week I went to Burger Jones for a family dinner while my little bro was on military leave.  I'll start out by saying that I went to Burger Jones with pretty low expectations, seeing as it is part of the Parasole restaurant family.  Now I have nothing against the Parasole restaurants per se, I just find that in general they are way too hyped up and I'm generally left with mediocre food in a jazzy and slightly annoying atmosphere.  As a side note, how Il Gatto got decent reviews in some of the local food publications is BEYOND me.  But I worked for a Parasole restaurant (Good Earth) and they usually have something decent on the menu, so I still go if required but make it a point to stick to the french fries (!) and beers.

First, I didn't like the restaurant atmosphere.  The space seemed crammed somehow -- we were jammed right up against our neighboring tables.  The decor seemed cheap in an obvious kind of way.  It was like they were trying to be a hole-in-the-wall diner but they tried too hard in a kitschy way and it was just an epic fail.  Plus the servers wore these outrageous (but admittedly funny) shirts that featured a whole host of double entendres, probably meant for the adults in the restaurant and not the children.  Overall, the restaurant itself didn't set itself up for success. 

Second, I didn't care for the service.  Our server was fine...nice and relatively timely...but the dude who brought us our food was three seconds away from being smacked across the face with my inedible veggie burger.  It was ironic because I had just read an article in the New York Times about restaurateurs who refuse to do substitutes on their menus.  You either get it their way or no way.  I respect that 100% -- food is art and chefs create it to taste a certain way.  You take out the cheese or add ketchup and it's no longer something they are proud to call their own.  But let's be clear.  Those are NYC restaurants with a little more leeway to do things like that.  We were at BURGER JONES.  My mom ordered a burger called "The Hangover" that had a fried egg on top.  (My pre-veggie self is swooning right now.)  The menu said that "The Hangover" came topped with hot sauce, and my mom asked if they could leave that off the burger.  No problem!  Happy to accommodate!  Then some guy comes to our table with our food and says, "Here's a burger with a fried egg on top.  It's not 'The Hangover' because that has hot sauce and you asked for it without hot sauce."  Ha.  It's one thing to not allow substitutions and the like, its even another thing to silently judge the restaurant patrons for doing something you think is crazy.  But to say something snotty like that to someone who is paying for the food?  Bitch, please.  I may be overreacting and nobody at my table batted an eye.  But I was upset.  And trust me, it's not the lack of hot sauce that made their food less than desirable.  Focus on that, Mr. Hot Sauce.  (To be clear, my mom should have ordered it with hot sauce because hot sauce is delightful.  But I'm allowed to say that to her face...Burger Jones dude is not.)

Okay, rant semi-complete!  So, I'm at a Parasole Restaurant (-1) and I order a veggie burger (-2) -- I'm operating with the lowest possible expectations here, and I'm still disappointed.  The burger was pretty tasteless, the addition of sprouts on top instead of lettuce was a huge mistake (wilted, stringy sprouts are not tasty in the least), and something was up with their cheese selection.  Before you say, "well suits you right for ordering a veggie burger," I will say that I have had some amazing veggie burgers at restaurants before, and my dad was similarly underwhelmed by his California cheeseburger.  It was nothing special, not worth the drive or the money, and their food is pretty cheap.  He decided to stick to the good burger joints -- 5-8 club, Frenchmans, and Shantytown.  All lovely places around Richfield. 

I will say that I enjoyed the fries.  Crispy and salty.  And I had some leftover chipotle aioli from our onion rings to use as a dipping sauce.  Not too shabby! 

Overall, I thought it was a bad sign that I came into a place expecting something not so good and left feeling disappointed.  I'm not willing to completely write them off though.  Their beer cheese soup made with Surly Furious looks pretty good, and ........ well I was about to say that their breakfast might be worth it but I checked out the menu and no thank you.  I also learned that another one of these is opening in Burnsville this year.  It disturbs me that enough people go here that another restaurant is required to satiate the public's needs.  C'mon people -- there are tons of amazing burger joints here in the Cities!  Try those places out.  THEN see if you ever want to go back to Burger Jones.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vanilla Oatmeal

I love Sunday morning.  There is nothing better than a lazy morning, cup of coffee in hand, newspaper at the ready, and a delicious breakfast.  Saturday mornings I'm usually running in the early AM, so Sundays are the only day I get to actually relax.  During these cold, wintry months, I love oatmeal and other warm cereals for breakfast. It's easy enough to just put together some instant oatmeal, which I do oftentimes during the week, and you get some of the deliciousness and health benefits, depending on the brand you buy.  (My favorite food blog Serious Eats did a taste test of instant oatmeals...results here and here.)  The simple, healthy oatmeal that I've grown to love has also been added to some fast food menus.  But beware!  These seemingly healthy breakfast options are actually teeming with sugar and additives!  You'd be better off making your own or trying some of the more healthy instant brands.  (I've even read that you can actually make your oats in a slow cooker overnight...more on that later.)

When I have the time on Sundays, I love slow cooking some steel-cut oats and adding certain accouterments that I've grown to love over the last few years.  So if you have the time, try these grown-up oats and kick back with your Sunday newspaper.

2 cups water
1/2 cup steel cut oats
2 tbls brown sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
few dashes cinnamon
handful of fresh/dried blueberries
handful sliver almonds
rice milk to your liking

Cook the steel cut oats according to the package directions.  It usually requires boiling the water, adding the oats and reducing the heat to low, stirring occasionally until the oats come together.

After the oats have cooked to your desired consistency, put the oats into a bowl and add the ingredients listed above.  You'll end up with a sweet, crunchy oatmeal treat.  The best part about this recipe is that it's completely versatile.  Want to add some pecans or walnuts?  Go ahead!  Have some apples?  Well then dice them up and add them in with some extra cinnamon and maybe some cream.  If you like an almond-y flavor, use almond extract instead of vanilla extract.  Oatmeal is just begging to be dressed up in a delicious manner, so have fun creating your own Sunday morning bowls.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Restaurant Week - Cosmos

Thursday night I headed out for another Restaurant Week adventure -- this time at Cosmos in the Graves Hotel downtown.  I had been to Cosmos one other time for a wine pairing and loved the space, so I was looking forward to this dinner.  The restaurant itself is very chic.  Retro-looking tables and chairs, high ceilings, open space, and this awesome back wall that is lit up with blue lights and has a "hanging" of mirrored circles that catch and reflect all of the light.  The space really sets the stage for a great experience.

The RW menu offered a lot of options, which I was very pleased to see.  We were first treated to an "amuse bouche" (one of my favorite phrases) of tuna tartar on a silver spoon.  My friend called "DIBS!" on my serving, and the server graciously offered to bring me a veggie-friendly item so I could participate in the pre-dinner amusements.  I couldn't have been more pleased with the offering.  It was a piece of slow baked tomato with candied pecans and an aged balsamic.  It was so amazingly delicious that I talked to the server for about ten minutes about the exact process of making that morsel of happiness.  They slow bake the tomatoes for about eight hours, then seed and skin them, and hang them in cheese cloth to drain off some of the tomato liquid (more on that later).  The candied pecans have an entirely different process, and the balsamic is aged about 12 years.  I could have eaten an entire meal of that tomato serving. 

My first course was the salad option, and it was fresh and crisp just like a good salad should be.  There were a few cherry tomatoes and a couple wedges of grapefruit tossed among the lettuces, and it was very lightly dressed, likely with a simple olive oil/balsamic dressing.  I adore super simple salads like this because you really get to appreciate the freshness of the ingredients when they are only accentuated by the light drizzle of oil and vinegar.  Don't get me wrong, a green salad with croutons and french dressing is also pretty tasty, but it has a time and a place, and it's NOT at Cosmos! 

My main course was their confit of artichokes, sweet potato gnocchi, shitake mushrooms, and wilted spinach.  I think I blacked out while I was eating this dish because it was so amazingly good.  The mushrooms were the focus of the dish, and they were perfectly cooked -- meaty but not chewy.  The artichokes and gnocchi were interspersed between the chunks of mushroom.  I really can't remember the particulars of this dish, except to say that I was extremely sad when it was all gone.  I desperately want to return and try it again. 

seriously, it's not steak!
 Our dessert course was another win for Cosmos.  Our server recommended the yogurt dessert over the chocolate option, and since I have no particular draw toward chocolate, I went with his recommendation.  The dessert arrived on a long, thin white plate, and the entire plate was evenly filled with vanilla greek yogurt.  There was a dollop of sweet blackberry sorbet that was the perfect complement to the tangy greek yogurt.  And the most surprising part of this dessert was the bits of herbed meringue sprinkled on the top of the yogurt.  I generally stay away from meringue in its dried form for some reason, but this was infused with an herb flavor that added a bit of savoriness to this sweet dessert.  The meringues had a bit of a crunch to them, but they melted into the bites of yogurt and sorbet to add a bit of an earthy vibe to each spoonful.  I've had a lot of great desserts in my day, but this was so simple in presentation and design yet so complex in flavor and texture that it ranks as one of the best. 

The best part of the night?  The tomato water.  The man who was kind of enough to talk through the ins and outs of my amuse bouche was also kind enough to let me try the infamous tomato water.  I was very curious about the tomato water that was served with their sea bass entree, and when I learned that it was a byproduct of my dinner amusement I was even more intrigued.  Fast forward a few minutes, and the guy showed up at our table with a small glass of this tomato water for me to try!  Who knew that the liquid drained off of a slow-baked tomato could be so delicious and refreshing?  Seriously!  I wouldn't go so far as to request a giant glass of this water as a beverage, but my friends and I had fun contemplating various uses for the sweet drink.

With our bill came tiny bites of passion fruit, dark chocolate truffles.  I don't generally eat dark chocolate since it's too bitter for me, but the combo of the bitter chocolate and the overly sweet and tart passion fruit filling was exceptional.  Plus it made paying the bill all the more enjoyable!

Cosmos's food was some of the best I've eaten in the Twin Cities and the service was also pretty fabulous.  It was busy, as is customary during RW, so our drinks sometimes got lost in the shuffle, but as a former server myself I did not mind that much.  Everyone seemed so excited about the food and eager to share the menu options with us, that I was caught up in the excitement.  Want to really impress someone?  Take them to Cosmos.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Friends on Food -- Creepy Interview

Because even food can be creepy at times.....
Monica, Season Two, "The One With the Prom Video":

INTERVIEWER: Alright, lets see if you're as good in person as you are on paper. Make me a salad.
MONICA: A salad? Really I could do something a little more complicated if you like.
INTERVIEWER: No, just a salad will be fine.
MONICA: You got it.

INTERVIEWER: Now, I want you to tell me what you're doing while you're doing it.
MONICA: Alright, well I'm tearing the lettuce.
INTERVIEWER: Uh-huh. Is it dirty?
MONICA: Oh-oh, no no don't worry, I'm gonna wash it.
INTERVIEWER: Don't ..... I like it.....dirty.
MONICA: That's your call.

INTERVIEWER: So, uh, what are you going to do next?
MONICA: Well, I thought that I would cut up the tomatos.
INTERVIEWER: Are they, uh, firm?
MONICA: They're alright.
INTERVIEWER: You sure they haven't gone bad? You're sure they're not very, very bad?
MONICA: No really, they're OK.

INTERVIEWER: You gonna slice them up real nice?
MONICA: Actually, I was gonna do them jullienne.
INTERVIEWER: Aaaahhhhhhh.
MONICA: I'm outa here!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sea Change Part II: A Pescetarian's Perspective

I realized that it was absolutely silly to have a review of Sea Change that focused only on their grilled cheese sandwich.  I mean c'mon!  So I asked my dear friend Jillian Dease to compile her thoughts about our lunch at Sea Change and guest post on my blog.  After I read her review, I thought about NOT posting it because her writing is going to make me look bad from now on!  But for the foodies out there who think grilled cheese is for suckers, here is Jillian to the rescue!

Sometimes it’s never about the food but about the gathering - - why we gather, where we gather, and with whom we gather.  For a recent midweek lunch date, it was about catching up and sharing some laughs with old friends at Sea Change, one of the most well-reviewed and best designed restaurants in the Twin Cities.  Big, lofted ceilings with spacious seating and hints of chartreuse surrounding the simple, elegant, and sophisticated design of the restaurant.  The gathering was perfect.

But, sometimes it’s about the gathering and the food, especially if you’re gathering at Sea Change.  I expected the food to be good, but there’s always a risk with preparing seafood, especially for a lunch crowd.  I ordered the bouillabaisse – basically, a fish stew.  It appeared in an oversized white bowl with a slice of toasted French bread smothered in some delicious aioli made with ingredients my amateur taste buds couldn’t quite discern.  Protected beneath the bread was the stew, filled with mussels, chunks of whitefish, a giant prawn, and other delectable seafood delicacies.  Each piece was cooked to perfection and tasted precisely as seafood should – fresh, rich, and meaty.  Although the broth was slightly more “fishy” tasting than I would have preferred, it satisfied the yearning for a light winter lunch:  not too heavy, but filled with savory spices (saffron, maybe?) in a rich tomato base.  Combined with the comfort of good friends and plush surroundings, the meal at Sea Change was superb.

Bouillabaisse at Sea Change

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Restaurant Week 2011 - Sea Change. Or Lessons in Being Famous.

It's officially Restaurant Week in the Twin Cities and I couldn't be more excited.  I love any excuse to check out new places and revisit some of my faves, but more people seem to get on board with my dining habits during restaurant week.  My first stop was Sea Change with two of my lawyer friends, Jillian & Jessica, to belatedly celebrate a 30th birthday (Jillian's!).

I adore Sea Change.  During a previous and pre-veggie RW, I went to Sea Change with another foodie friend before we hit up a performance of Macbeth at the Guthrie.  The crisp skin arctic char on the dinner menu changed my life and the service was outstanding.  We were given plastic cups to take the last of our bottle of wine into the show and were allowed to come back and eat our dessert course after the play ended.  My experience was so positive that I was dying to go back.

The restaurant itself is fabulous.  The windows overlook the river and as far as I can tell, they have tables available for outdoor seating in nicer weather.  (As a Minnesotan, I found our 35-degree day pretty delightful, but we opted for an indoor table.)  The tables are sparkly and the artwork adds some intrigue without being ostentatious.  There is also a raw bar in the center that reminds you yes, this is a seafood restaurant.  But no, it's not Red Lobster.  Overall it's a lovely setting.  When we walked in, my friends mentioned how beautiful the restaurant is inside, to which I responded in my usual fashion, "You guys have never been here?  Well sucks to be you because this place is awesome."  I'm classy that way.  The manager heard me and apparently appreciated my uncouth comments because after we sat down, we were each treated to a complimentary glass of Cava -- a sparkling Spanish wine.  After our server realized one of my friends is with child, they brought her a glass of S. Pellegrino with orange juice, and Jessica & I split her glass of wine.  My love for Sea Changed tripled at that point, because everyone knows that the fastest way to my heart is free food or free drinks.  Sipping the sparkling drink made me feel famous, much like how Paris Hilton probably feels after her seventh free bottle of Dom PĂ©rignon. 

 We checked out the RW menu and the regular lunch menu.  I was drawn to the grilled cheese/fries but my friends were unsure.  We asked our server about the bouillabaisse and the fish tacos, and he helped them decide on the bouillabaisse.  Our server pretty much rocked, by the way.  The food arrived and I was immediately impressed.

My grilled cheese sandwich was perfect.  Thick slices of buttery, toasted white bread filled with smoked cheddar cheese, which I dipped into the roasted tomato aioli with every bite.  I was pleasantly surprised by the grilled cheese because my restaurant experiences with this classic sandwich have been mostly negative.  The bread is either too toasted or barely toasted and more often than not the sandwich is filled with way too much cheese or a mashup of cheeses that don't really go well together.  Now I love cheese as much as the next guy, and I'd probably hit that next guy and steal his cheese too.  But I don't like massive amounts of rubbery, overly melted cheese on my sandwich.  Cheese is not to be overdone people!  A common mistake.  Sea Change did it fantastically with a few slices of smoked cheddar that were melted just enough to still make it a grilled cheese sandwich.  The aioli was the perfect addition to this sandwich, adding a little extra depth and complementing the smokiness of the cheese wonderfully.

Now on to the fries.  They were good, I'd totally eat them again, but nothing special.  The fries were the thin, lightly salted and of the lightly fried variety.  Had they been served with homemade ketchup, I would have been in heaven.  Simple fries are the perfect vehicle for delicious, homemade ketchup.  I realize that I went to a seafood restaurant and french fries should really be the least of their concerns, but I love fries so I will order and review them to my heart's content at any restaurant kind enough to serve them. 

Sea Change did not disappoint and I would highly, highly recommend this establishment to anyone who wants delicious food and excellent customer service.  And a quick word about the practices of Sea Change, because that is what first drew me to this restaurant.  The chef, Tim McKee, designed the menu focusing on sustainable seafood.  The restaurant buys from fisheries that are committed to environmentally friendly methods of gathering and farming fish. I love supporting restaurants that acknowledge their broader impact on the world and take the opportunity to make a difference.  Sea Change recognizes its environmental and ethical obligations, and for that I will always be a fan.  Well done, Sea Change.  Well done. 

So seriously, go check out Sea Change.  Like make a reservation right now.  And if you don't get it for free, you should order their Cava because it's a drink for the famous.