Monday, November 27, 2006

Homemade lefse

Over the holiday weekend, Mom and I made our traditional batch of lefse. This is something we do every Thanksgiving and at Christmas.

Lefse is a Scandinavian flatbread that is made from a potato-based dough, and It accompanies most holiday meals around this time of year. It is rolled very thin and cooked on a hot griddle (or an authentic lefse griddle, if you are a purist) until it develops some nice brown spots. To offer a comparison, lefse looks quite similar to a flour tortilla.

At its best, lefse is a delicate and pliable bread. Some people like to wrap things in it, others like it with a little jam, or even some simple butter and sugar. Me, I like it straight-up with nothing on it. I find it is excellent on its own!

We ate the entire batch over the course of the week, so I had none to take home with my leftovers. Because of that, I am looking forward to making another batch at Christmas! :)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dining at The Angled Utensil

While in Grand Marais over the Thanksgiving holiday, my Mom, sister-in-law, and I had lunch at The Crooked Spoon Cafe. Mom had been wanting to go here since they opened, and that was all the reason I needed!

The Crooked Spoon Cafe
17 W. Wisconsin Street
Grand Marais, MN

The Crooked Spoon Cafe is a relatively new restaurant right in the heart of the downtown area. It is a tiny restaurant with seating for perhaps fifty or so diners. The menu is a creative one (this was the lunch menu), with a selection of sandwiches, salads, appetizers, and a couple of soups, including some daily specials.

Mom had their signture soup (pictured to the left), which was French onion served in a crock with Gruyere cheese and puff pastry taking place of the traditional crouton. A dramatic presentation. for certain, and Mom said it was excellent. My sister-in-law had the muffuletta; a huge sandwich with olive salad and roasted peppers, served on a baguette. Eating it was a messy and challenging proposition, but she said it was very good!

I had the "Crooked BLT," which consisted of thick-sliced pepper bacon, balsamic-marinated tomatoes, bibb lettuce, and a curried mayonnaise, served on caraway rye bread. It was a great sandwich. The bacon was awesome, and I loved the balsamic tomatoes, which contributed a sweet and zippy flavor to the dish. The curried mayo added an exotic flavor that worked unexpectedly well. It gave me some new ideas for making BLT's at home.

The "Crooked BLT"

This restaurant might be a little too creative or precious for some. In other words, if you are looking for a greasy burger and fries, this is not the place to go! And, while I thought my lunch was reasonable ($7.50 for my sandwich), it is not the cheapest place in town, particularly for dinner. However, if you are looking for some creative and tasty offerings that are different from the norm, The Crooked Spoon Cafe is worth checking out.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Road Food Pursuits - Sager’s Bar & Grill

Centerville, MN, is a town of 3,000 residents located in the northeast corner of the Twin Cities metro area, sandwiched between the cities of Lino Lakes and Hugo.

Centerville has a long history dating back to the 1850’s, prior to Minnesota statehood. French-Canadian fur traders were quite active here because of the abundant wildlife, and Centerville became the main stop between Stillwater and Anoka.

Early settlers would hardly recognize Centerville today. It has become engulfed by the metro, and signs of development surround the city. However, there is a little piece of small town charm that remains.

Sager’s Bar & Grill
7098 Centerville Road
Centerville, MN

Sager’s Bar & Grill is an honest to goodness small town corner bar. As you approach the intersection of Centerville Road and County Road 14, it is hard to miss with its bright green paint job! I was unable to really find out much about this establishment, as they do not seem to have much of a web presence, but I do believe it only became Sager’s recently (formerly known as Kelly's Korner). But obviously, this building has been here a long time.

Sager’s is a sports bar, with a separate bar and dining area. The interior is rather spartan and nothing fancy, with tables and chairs you might find at a church potluck. The walls are covered with the requisite neon beer signs, there are lots of flat screen TV, pools tables, games, a stage for live music, and they even have a lady selling pull tabs.

The menu is huge, offering countless appetizers, creative sandwiches, and burgers, along with a number of different dinner entrees; things you would expect to see on a sports bar menu.

The Mushroom-Swiss Burger at Sager’s Bar & Grill

I ordered the 1/4 pound mushroom-Swiss burger with fries (1/2 pound burgers are also available for the larger appetite). The burger patty was pressed thin, quickly seared, and topped with a mound of sautéed mushrooms and a slice of Swiss cheese. It was served on a nicely toasted sesame seed kaiser roll.

It is hard to wax poetic about this burger because it was unpretentious and simple. But it was also quite good, very much a “what you see is what you get” kind of meal. Despite being a thinner patty, it was still very juicy, and the whole thing seemed quite large for a mere 1/4 pounder. There were tons of delicious mushrooms tucked underneath the melted Swiss. And a toasted sesame seed roll is always a nice touch!

While the fries are my least favorite style (the thicker, square-cut type), it was hard to fault them because they were golden brown and nicely crisped.

All in all, a satisfying and flavorful burger at a decent price. The meal, with a pop, cost $9.55 before tip.

It is nice to see the small town corner bar is still alive in some areas of the ever-expanding metro. This is just further proof that you have to keep exploring. Places like Sager’s Bar & Grill are out there; you just have to look a little harder.

Jelly Belly by the truckload

I am a Jelly Belly jellybean junkie. Hands down, this is my favorite candy on the planet.

Ever since I was a little kid, whenever we went to a mall, I had to stop at one of the candy stores that sold the bulk Jelly Belly beans, You know, the kind where you could custom mix your own flavors.

Year’s ago, there used to be a number of places that sold Jelly Belly in bulk. It would seem in recent years that a lot of those stores (at least in my area) closed their doors. And since I don’t go to malls much, bulk Jelly Belly’s have been slightly harder to come by.

Imagine my delight when I saw the SuperTarget in my neighborhood had bin after bin of bulk Jelly Belly beans! I happily loaded up a bag with all of my favorite flavors this morning (nearly a full pound!), taking care to avoid the bin with the horrible buttered popcorn flavored beans... :)

Life is good.

A belated post of my lunch at Chez Jude

Note: this is a writeup I did last May, and I felt it was worthy of inclusion on this blog. Better late than never! :)

Chez Jude
411 W. Highway 61
Grand Marais, MN

Over Memorial Day weekend I had lunch at Chez Jude in Grand Marais, MN. Mom thought it would be the kind of restaurant I would appreciate.

Chez Jude is a cute little resturant that was created in an old house with a lovely view of the harbor. This is the kind of place that focuses on serious food made with locally-produced, seasonal ingredients, and it is artfully presented.

Mom had the breast of chicken tartine, which was essentially an open-faced baguette sandwich with wood-roasted and sliced chicken, tomato, and onion, served with a cucumber salad and pommes frites, a meal which she liked very much. I had the wood-fired pizza balsamico with strip steak, boursin cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and asparagus spears, drizzled with a reduced balsamic vinegar syrup. It was absolutely excellent.

I would highly recommend this restaurant. The food is of top quality and presented beautifully. But be warned; it is not the kind of place to go if you are looking for a simple burger or sandwich. This is a place for foodies who are looking for something more along the lines of an upscale dining experience on the North Shore. If that is your kind of thing, by all means, go.

Friday, November 17, 2006

What WON'T be on our Thanksgiving menu

Really, there are no words...

White Castle Turkey Stuffing


The first good pizza in the new place

Since I moved into my new place, I have had difficulties making dough. Once I got over that, I then had issues with temperature control in my new oven.

Tonight I jacked up the heat to 550 and let the pizza stone heat up for 45 minutes. Here is what I ended up with:

To date, this is the best pizza I have made in the new apartment. Aside from a couple of air bubbles that got away from me, the bottom of the crust was nice and crisp, yet the edge had a great chewiness to it. A good effort. I think I am finally getting this oven figured out!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Memories of Blazin' Sauce

Tonight I found myself at the Buffalo Wild Wings location in Plymouth for a year end fantasy league banquet and awards ceremony. Over the years, this becomes a default gathering place for leagues, to plan trips, or just to get together for the heck of it.

I have not been to Buffalo Wild Wings in several months, but I am a seasoned veteran of this establishment. I really enjoy their wings. And I still vividly recall my first brush with the dreaded "Blazin'" sauce.

December of 1994; the franchise was known simply as "BW3" back then. It was along the lines of a typical college bar scene at that time, unlike the more family-friendly sports bar atmosphere they are trying to carve out today. Several of us from work had ventured to Minnesota's lone location in Dinkytown for some wings and beer the night before Christmas vacation.

Being a rookie who liked hot food, I foolishly went straight to the top of the charts and ordered the wings with "Blazin'" sauce, the hottest thing on the menu. My friends (all BW3 regulars) strongly advised that I reconsider. But my hubris or youth got the better of me.

I mean, I am the guy who keeps a stash of different hot sauces in my fridge for those times when a liberal application of heat is needed on an otherwise bland dish. I have eaten the much feared "#7" (a fiery beef and jalapeno burrito combination) at the now defunct T. Juan's Mexican Restaurant in Brainerd, MN, and lived to tell about it. And I always order Chinese take-out menu items that have the little "star" or "pepper" icon next to them. How bad could the "Blazin'" sauce be?


To this day, those wings were the hottest things I have ever put in my mouth. Sweat was absolutely pouring down my face as I tried to choke down this spicy chicken from hell. In fact, the wings were so hot, they gave me the hiccups! No food has ever done that to me before. It is not a comfortable feeling. And no amount of beer can adequately put out the fire (believe me, I tried!).

Having learned my lesson the hard way, I tend to opt for the milder flavors these days. The "medium" level is about as high as I will go as far as the more traditional wing sauce is concerned. And I have come to enjoy some of their newer sauces, such as the Thai (which, sadly, I learned they don't make anymore!) and Caribbean Jerk.

But hey, if you don't believe me about the "Blazin'" sauce, try it for yourself. And bring a camera, because "before and after" pictures are always appreciated… :)

Thanksgiving take-out?

Thanksgiving with my family has always meant a home cooked feast, and I can't see how we would ever deviate from that.

But that is not the case for everyone. In recent years, I have noticed a growing trend where more and more people are getting their Thanksgiving dinners via take-out, or even going out to a restaurant. One cannot deny the great convenience and time savings this would offer, especially consider how busy and crazy the holiday season can be for some folks. And given the reputations of some of the businesses offering Turkey Day to-go or dine-in, I would have to imagine their dinners would also taste very good.

Today's St. Paul Pioneer Press ran an article featuring places in the Twin Cities where you can get your Thanksgiving dinner to go. In addition, they also have a list of restaurants serving Thanksgiving dinner. I was astonished to see the number of different stores and restaurants providing such services, proving that these options are becoming popular, and perhaps more viable, choices for a lot of families.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tony Stewart's Cheese-Stuffed BBQ Meat Loaf

1. Take a recipe for Alton Brown's "Good Eats" Meat Loaf.

2. Divide the meat mixture in half. Put one half of the mixture in the bottom of a loaf pan and press it down. Lay a few slices of your favorite cheese (in this case, sharp cheddar and Swiss) lengthwise in the center of the meat mixture. Place the other half of the meat mixture on top and press it down so it will create a pocket of cheese in the middle.

3. Instead of the glaze from Alton's recipe, substitute some of Tony Stewart's "Smoke" Bar-B-Que Sauce, and bake per Alton's instructions.

4. Allow the meat loaf to rest for 15 minutes after baking. Take a moment to enjoy the sight of the molten cheese that will flow from the center after slicing.

5. Enjoy the meat loaf while watching a little NASCAR on TV! :)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Beef Jerky

Who doesn't love beef jerky? I will occasionally buy some to snack on if I am near a reputable meat market, or will pick up a bag of Jack Link's at a gas station when I am on a road trip. But the problem is that purchasing beef jerky is kind of expensive.

An easy and more economical solution is to make it yourself. While I don't have a smoker, I do have a food dehydrator, and I have been making my own recipe for a number of years.

When making jerky with a dehydrator, the key is an overnight soak of the beef in a salty, sweet, and flavorful marinade to help preserve and flavor it. Since I am not smoking my jerky, to impart some smoky flavor I use liquid smoke. As the name would imply, this is a concentrated, smoked liquid that you can find at any supermarket in the country. Look for it the condiment aisle.

You must use a lean cut of beef (anything fatty just turns nasty and chewy). I really like using an eye of round roast for jerky. There is very little fat on it, and you can slice it into nice, large slabs. This time I used a sirloin tip roast that I found on sale, which has similar qualities.

The resulting jerky is a delicious combination of sweet, salty, and spicy. It is very addicting.

Jean's Dehydrator Beef Jerky

-2/3 cup soy sauce
-1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
-3 T. brown sugar
-1 1/2 T. liquid smoke
-1 t. crushed red pepper
-1/2 t. garlic powder
-Lots of fresh ground black pepper (perhaps 20 turns from your pepper grinder!)
-2 lbs. lean beef (such as eye of round roast, sirloin tip roast, or round steak), sliced about 1/8-1/4 inch thick

Day 1: Combine the soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, liquid smoke, garlic powder, crushed red pepper, and black pepper. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Place the sliced beef in a large zip-top bag and pour the liquid mixture over the top. Seal the bag, place it in a bowl (in case the bag springs a leak!), and allow it to marinate in the fridge overnight, turning it from time to time to allow for a good distribution of the marinade.

Day 2: Remove the beef from the marinade, discarding the liquid. On the racks of your food dehydrator, lay the slices of beef in a single layer, taking care to ensure that they are not touching each other, and that there are enough gaps to allow for proper circulation (depending upon the size of your dehydrator, you may have to do two batches). Turn on the dehydrator and let it work its magic. You may wish to rotate the trays to ensure even drying. Generally I find this takes somewhere between 4 to 6 hours, depending upon how thick you slice the beef, and how dry you want it.

You will know when it is done when the beef is dry, still somewhat pliable, and there are no soft, raw feeling spots. Allow the jerky to cool completely before packaging. I like to keep it in a zip top bag or a tupperware container in a the fridge. I have no idea how long it will keep because a batch never lasts more than four days or so!

Note: If you don't have a food dehydrator, there is no reason this recipe couldn't be accomplished in the oven on a really low heat by using some cookies sheets and racks. I would hesitate to offer any drying times or guidelines, but I know you can do it this way. Just think "low and slow," and keep an eye on it! :)


Road Food Pursuits - Miller's on Main

One of the truly fun aspects of moving is getting to explore a new neighborhood. Now that I am somewhat settled, today I hopped in my car to see if I could find a good local joint for lunch.

Miller’s on Main
8001 Lake Drive
Lino Lakes, MN

One the northwest corner of Main and Lake Drive in Lino Lakes, you will find Miller’s on Main. This bar and restaurant very much has a “sports bar” feel to it with some NASCAR overtones (which I can appreciate!). They cater primarily to a local crowd, sponsoring various activities such as card tournaments, meat raffles, golf leagues, and even a Polish horseshoes league!

The bar and restaurant are separate, and the walls are covered with knotty pine and sports memorabilia. There are numerous TV’s with different sporting events playing on all of them.

On this Saturday, they were doing a pretty brisk business at lunch. The bar was filled with hunters who were exchanging their stories with each other.

The menu contains a lot of your standard bar food fare; burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads, pizza, broasted chicken, as well as dinner entrees such as steaks and ribs. I ordered the Miller’s “Small Block,” and let me tell you, there was nothing small about it! The “Small Block” is a half-pound hamburger topped with Swiss and Cheddar cheese, bacon, mushrooms, and grilled onions and peppers. A different twist was that the burger was served on Texas toast.

The Miller’s “Small Block” at Miller’s on Main

What a fantastic burger! The patty was grilled to order (a perfect medium), and it was extremely juicy. It was stacked high with mushrooms, onions, peppers, and crispy bacon. A slice of Swiss and cheddar cheese served at the “glue” to hold it all together. While it is challenging to eat such a tall sandwich, it was worth the effort.

I loved the idea of using Texas toast in lieu of a bun. Rarely do you ever see this done, with the possible exception if a “patty melt.” But the toast seemed to offer a more stable platform to support such a large burger with all the toppings. And since the burger was so juicy, the toasted bread held up much better than a soft bun would have. A great idea!

The fries were of the thin, shoestring variety, cooked up nice and crispy. There was enough of them on my plate for two people. They were delicious, but I could not eat them all. The whole meal, with a diet Pepsi, cost $9.84 (before tip). A solid value for a burger of that size and quality.

You have to love a small local bar that serves up a great burger, and Miller's on Main does just that. I am very happy that this establishment in in my new neighborhood!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

'Tis the season for lutefisk!

With the holiday season rapidly approaching, here in Minnesota this can only mean one thing; it's time for lutefisk!

For the uninitiated (or, for the non-Scandinavians out there!), lutefisk is a fish; more specifically, dried cod that has been preserved in lye. It is rehydrated, cooked, has a somewhat gelatinous texture, and is usually topped with melted butter (if you are Norwegian) or a cream sauce (if you are Swedish). Lutefisk is a traditional Christmas dinner accompaniment in many Scandinavian households in Minnesota, including ours.

This "iggly-jiggly" fish (as some call it) has very little middle ground; people either love it or hate it, and jokes are often cracked regarding its texture and aroma. I myself am not a fan of the stuff, but many of my family members are. However, I do recognize and appreciate the importance of lutefisk as a part of our holiday celebrations!

It is not uncommon for Minnesota churches with Norwegian and Swedish roots to host annual lutefisk suppers (which also tend to showcase other traditional Scandinavian specialties such as Swedish meatballs, lefse, krumkake, rommegrot, rosettes, and the like). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently ran an article that talks about the fellowship and social aspect of these dinners.

Also, the article interviewed a gentleman named Jim Harris who is a lutefisk lover from Apple Valley. He runs a lutefisk website, has visited numerous lutefisk suppers throughout the upper Midwest, and even compiled a list of restaurants and churches that offer this delicacy.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bolognese Sauce with Spaghetti

Long time, no post!

I am officially moved! Things are still in a bit of disarray, as I am nowhere near unpacked, and I am still trying to figure out where everything is! But last night I cooked my first meal in my new apartment; Bolognese sauce with spaghetti (and in celebration, I opened a really nice 1997 Barolo to accompany it…mmmm, Barolo!).

Bolognese sauce is a meat ragu for pasta that was made famous in Bologna, Italy. In a nutshell, it is ground meat, aromatic vegetables, and a little tomato cooked with some wine and stock and is finished with a little milk or cream. Traditionally this is served with the long, flat tagliatelle pasta, although I like it with just about any long pasta, or short tubular pasta, for that matter.

It is a rich, thick, and complex sauce that is easy to make, but it does take time (there are no shortcuts!). There are as many recipes for this as there are people, and this is how I did it yesterday. My recipe varies all the time, the amounts are not exact, and I make no claims of authenticity. But it does taste very good. And the leftover sauce freezes exceptionally well.

Jean's Bolognese Sauce

-Olive oil
-1 lb. ground beef
-1 lb. ground pork
-Salt and pepper
-2 carrots, finely diced
-2 stalks of celery, finely diced
-1 small yellow onion, finely diced
-8 cloves garlic, minced
-1 T. tomato paste
-Red wine
-1 cup beef stock
-1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
-Dried basil
-Dried Italian seasoning
-A pinch of crushed red pepper
-8 oz. package crimini mushrooms, sliced
-1/4 cup of milk

In a heavy bottomed pot, heat some olive oil and brown the meat, seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove the meat and set aside, and drain all but a tablespoon of fat. Add the carrots, celery, and onions and sauté until softened and the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the garlic and cook another minute. Toss in the tomato paste and stir until it coats the bottom of the pot and starts to brown. Add some red wine to deglaze and scrape up the brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Add the beef stock, tomatoes, the dried basil and dried Italian seasoning (perhaps a tsp. of each), and the pinch of crushed red pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Allow to simmer for at least 3 hours, stirring occasionally. As the amount of liquid reduces, I like to keep adding a little more red wine and allowing it to continue cooking down. Repeat this action over the course of the cooking process (I probably used about 3/4 of a bottle of wine). Perhaps about 15 minutes before serving, stir the milk (or cream if you so desire). Serve over your pasta of choice with a little grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Percorino Romano cheese, and open a bottle of Italian red wine!