31 August 2006

Three new posts

Okay, I’m sorry, but I’m doing 3 posts today. I know I ought to be more disciplined about posting more regularly, instead of doing them in bunches, but so far, I haven’t been able to do that. So the next 3 posts are some personal background, a garden ingredient, and a restaurant review.

So where did ‘Krik’s Picks’ come from?

I already told you that I work for Land O’Lakes, right? I do government relations. That means I’m our lobbyist. Land O'Lakes is a cooperative. That means we’re owned by the farmers who produce the milk and buy the feed, seed, and agronomy products that we sell. That also means our board is elected by the farmers.

One of my jobs is to organize a board meeting in Washington, DC. I make arrangements for ag policy leaders to meet with the board, and I set up appointments for them to meet with their Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill. In those meetings, they advocate for policies that benefit farmers and cooperatives.

Several of our board members make regular trips to Washington, and they know their way around. But when we bring the whole board to DC, some of the board members are pretty inexperienced in the city.

I like Washington, DC. I travel there several times a year, and I’ve eaten in many of the city’s restaurants. I think it’s a nice city to visit. But it can be intimidating. Especially for farmers and rural residents who may not be comfortable with big cities anyway.

Most of the meals and events for our board in DC are organized. But the first night that they arrive usually is a free night, and they’re on their own for dinner. So a few years ago, I put together a review of restaurants to help them decide where to eat on their free night in our nation’s capitol city. I titled the document ‘Krik’s Picks for DC Eats.’ I listed several restaurants in different parts of the city and provided some basic information – what kind of food, had I eaten there before, do they serve Land O’Lakes products, etc.

I’m not trying to brag, but it turns out, a lot of the board members really liked it. In fact, word started to spread, and pretty soon, I had people calling me asking me for a copy. Here’s something interesting … just giving people some basic information about where to eat often encourages them to be more adventuresome on their own. Now when I include Krik’s Picks for our board meetings in DC, the board members often tell me about restaurants not on my list that they’ve tried and liked.

So, when I finally decided to do a food blog, it was a fairly easy decision to call it Krik’s Picks. By the way, I would welcome your comments on restaurants that you’ve tried.

Thanks for reading.

An individual ‘Signature’

I enjoy trying new neighborhood restaurants. The best of them are unique dining experiences that reflect a harmonious blend of the chef/owner’s dedication to good food and the sensibilities of the people who live nearby.

Last Saturday, my wife and I went with friends to Signature in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was a great restaurant. The food was wonderful. The ambiance was very relaxing. Though we ate inside, there was an inviting outdoor patio filled with people, we assumed residents of the neighborhood. Despite all of that, I have begun to wonder: Is it possible for a restaurant to be so idiosyncratic to the vision of the owner/chef and the neighborhood that it loses its appeal to a broader clientele?

First, let me tell you about our dining experience. Inside the restaurant was very comfortable and casually decorated. The owner brought over a wine list with many distinctive, reasonably priced choices. We settled on Villa Rizzardi Pojega Valpolicella. It was perfect for the evening.

We all ordered a first course and an entrée. Our choices were calamari, an apple walnut spinach salad, goat cheese cassoulet, and a garlic soup which was the nightly special. I didn’t try the soup or the calamari. But the salad was very good, and the cassoulet was outstanding.

For entrées, we ordered pan seared wild scallops, pork short ribs, portabella mushroom topped soft polenta, and duck leg confit. I didn’t try the short ribs. I thought the polenta with mushrooms was the best meal at the table; very flavorful with nice contrasting textures.

My second favorite was the scallops. They were very nicely prepared. My wife generally likes her seafood cooked through, and these were borderline for her. But they weren’t so rare that she felt like sending them back. I tasted them, and I thought they were cooked just right.

The duck confit was very tasty, but I thought it should have been more tender with the meat flaking off the bone more easily.

We did share a dessert for the table, a fresh berry tart. And we liked it quite a lot.

All in all, we had no complaints about the meal.

But later in the evening, one of our group commented that she wouldn’t go back, and there was general agreement among us. That got me wondering – what was missing for us? The food was good. We enjoyed our wine. The ambiance was relaxing. Yet, as I think about the evening, what we enjoyed the most was each other’s company. Despite everything, the restaurant did not enhance our experience.

I’m still not sure what was missing. The only think I can come up with is that we didn’t quite fit in to the target market for Signature. Something about the neighborhood or the owner’s philosophy didn’t click with us. If another of our friends wanted us to join them there, sure, I’d go. But if I were asked for a recommendation, I’d probably suggest someplace new or a return trip to an old favorite like Barbette or Broders Pasta Bar.

Chive flowers


In May, I was in Washington, DC, on business and I stopped in to Equinox for lunch. I like that restaurant. I’ve eaten there a couple of times for dinner, but this was my first time there for lunch. Instead of an entrée, I ordered a salad and a first course.

The salad was the mozzarella and baby spinach salad. The first course was the orecchiette with artichoke hearts. Both were delicious. I highly recommend either one.

The salad had these cute little white flowers sprinkled over. I was intrigued, especially because the menu description didn’t mention them. After I had paid, and as I was leaving, I stopped to chat with the maitre d’. My server walked by, and I just asked her about the flowers. She said she thought they were chive flowers, but she’d send the chef out to tell me.

In just a minute, the chef came out of the kitchen. He confirmed that they were, indeed, chive flowers. He said he had snipped them off of the chive plants at his home that morning. He hold me all you do is pick the flower bud and then snip off the base of the bud. Then he just sprinkled all of the little stamens and flowers over the salad.

I’ve had edible flowers before, but I’ve never thought about actually using them in anything that I cook. But I have chives in my garden – it would be such an easy thing to add the chive flowers to salads or pasta in my own kitchen!

Unfortunately, my chives had already finished blooming for the spring. I was able to clip a few final blooms, but didn’t really get much chance to try it.

Fortunately, even in Minnesota, our season is long enough so that chives bloom twice. And mine have just started to bloom again! Tonight for dinner, I clipped a bud and sprinkled chive blossoms over my risotto (made with roasted eggplant, tomatoes, and smoked cheddar cheese). It was so much fun!

By the way, the plants that are currently blooming are garlic chives. My dad gave us the plant several years ago. The chives have a delicate garlic flavor and are a great substitution to any recipe that calls for chives.

26 August 2006

A Friday lunch at Barbette

It’s been a busy summer. I’ve had some special projects at work, and I haven’t taken much time off to relax and enjoy our all-too-brief Minnesota summer. So on Friday, I took the day off and went with my wife to the Minnesota History Center and then to a mid-afternoon lunch.

When Linda and I are traveling, we love going to the art and history museums in the cities we visit. (We don’t do that often enough in our home city.) And it often works out that if we arrive at the museum at mid-morning, we’re not out of there until well past our ‘non-tourist’ lunch time. On this particular Friday, we left the museum at 1:15 p.m. and drove to one of our favorite Uptown Minneapolis cafes – Barbette. We arrived just a little before 2 p.m.

Barbette is a funky, fun, sort of counter-culture café. There’s a well-stocked bar, and at the end of the bar is a curlicue counter that adds a lot of interest to the interior. There are tables and booths. We sat at a cozy table for two in the middle of the restaurant. Danielle was our efficient and attentive server.

From our past visits, we knew we could count on Barbette to offer some unusual wines, so we took a look at the list. We were rewarded by finding several wines by the glass that looked intriguing. I opted for a French rose. Linda was having trouble deciding between an Argentine Malbec and a Beaujolais. Danielle was very accommodating and offered her a taste of each, even opening a new bottle of the Malbec. In the end, Linda chose the Beaujolais by Louis Tete. Regrettably, Barbette doesn’t post its wine list on line, and I couldn’t remember the rose I had. Both of our wines were just right for a late August afternoon – very flavorful, but not too heavy or intense.

The lunch special was sea scallops with gnocchi, arugula, scallions, and parmesan cheese. Normally, we like to order different entrees and share. But the special looked too good to pass up, so that’s what we both ordered. The scallops were cooked just right – not too rare for Linda, but not at all tough or rubbery. The gnocchi were light like little potato pillows. There was a yummy tomato paprika sauce that had a nice smoky flavor. I thought it was smoked paprika, but Danielle said she thought it was from roasting the tomatoes.

It happens that Barbette honors the Minnesota Public Radio membership card with a two-for-one deal. So we got out of there for a very reasonable price. The lunch specials were $13 and the wine was $7/glass.

Barbette also is fun for dinner. A pot of steamed mussels makes a great starter for a meal with a few friends. We discovered our favorite Spanish wine at Barbette. All in all, it’s a great little place that serves good food and interesting wine. I recommend it.

06 August 2006

Homemade Tomato Soup

Homemade Tomato Soup

The original recipe called for chicken broth. But since it was a kosher cookbook, it called for using non-dairy creamer. Since I work for a dairy company, Land O'Lakes, using non-dairy creamer is a travesty. So I switched it around. My adaptation calls for using instant mock chicken broth and milk. My adaptation also is half the original quantity.

In a soup pot, heat:
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil

Add:
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon thyme
¼ teaspoon dried basil
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Cook until the onion wilts.

Add:
2 tablespoons flour
Blend well.

Add:
3-4 medium size canned tomatoes with their liquid
Simmer for 10 minutes.

Add:
2 cups broth (I use vegetarian, mock chicken instant soup mix)
Simmer for 10 minutes. Then transfer to a blender or use a hand blender and puree the soup. Return to soup pot.

Add:
¾ cup milk
Heat gently to desired temperature (don’t boil) and serve.

In our home, fresh soup is a Sunday noon meal with fresh-baked bread and slices of cheese.

Risotto w/ Tomatoes & Parmesan

Risotto w/ Tomatoes & Parmesan

In Patricia Wells’ Trattoria, this recipe is called Risotto alla Cardinale. My adaptation below is half the quantity of the original. The original called for homemade chicken stock. Where I use garden herbs, the original calls for two bay leaves. I use whatever herbs are available – parsley, fresh oregano, basil; in the fall, sage is very good. I also substitute cooking onions for shallots if I don’t have shallots in the kitchen.

2 cups vegetable broth or instant, ‘mock’ chicken broth
1 cup whole canned tomatoes, crushed
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (divided)
1 minced shallot
¼ cup fresh garden herbs, minced
1 cup Arborio rice
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Combine broth and tomatoes in a saucepan. Bring to a boil then reduce to simmer. In a sauté pan, melt butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Cook shallots over medium heat until translucent, about 3 minutes, but don’t let them brown. Stir in the rice and cook for one minute until grains are coated and glistening.

Add a ladle of liquid (broth and tomatoes), stir constantly until liquid is absorbed by the rice. Continue to add liquid about ½ cup at a time, stirring until absorbed after each addition. When most of the liquid has been added to the rice, the grains will be tender but firm to the bite. This takes about 15 minutes.

Remove rice from heat. Stir in remaining tablespoon of oil, herbs, and cheese. Cover and let stand off the heat for about 2 minutes to allow flavors to blend; the rice will finish cooking. Add salt to taste. Serve.

My parent’s tomatoes

My mom and dad have a big garden. They always have done. When I was a kid growing up, the garden was an important part of our food supply. It was our source of most fresh vegetables through the summer and canned and frozen vegetables got us through most winters.

When I grew up and left home, I still benefited from my parent’s garden. They always had plenty to send along with me to my own home, both when I was in college and later when I got married and started a family of my own.

I’m the oldest of five, and we’re spread out, 17 years between me and my youngest brother. So Mom and Dad had a lot of kids at home even after I left. Now, actually, all five of us are out and on our own. But my parents have not significantly reduced the size of their garden. Keeping the garden is partly a habit, I guess, and partly a great hobby for a retired farm couple.

I appreciate getting fresh vegetables from their garden during the summer. But there are two things that I rely on – apples from their trees (both fresh and frozen) and tomatoes (fresh and canned). I’ll write about apples some other time.

My pantry always has a supply of canned tomatoes from my folks. They get used in a wide variety of recipes. But I have two standbys that I always return to. One is a tomato risotto and the other is homemade tomato soup.

The risotto is adapted from Patricia Wells’ cookbook Trattoria. The soup is adapted from a cookbook I picked up in Brochin’s Jewish gift shop in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It’s called Soups of Hakafri Restaurant, subtitled “An Old Fashioned Village Restaurant in Israel.” It’s a fun cookbook because each recipe is printed in English and Hebrew. Both cookbooks appear to be currently available on Amazon.com.

I think I’ll post the recipes separately from this commentary.

Steve

Welcome

I thought I’d get started by telling you a little about myself and what to expect in this blog.

This blog is mostly about food. It will include restaurant reviews, recipes, as well as other posts related to food – food movies, food on television, food magazines, food in music – you get the idea.

A lot of the major influences in my life relate to food. I grew up on a farm. When I was a kid (1950s and 60s), food preparation was handled by my Mom and to some extent my sister. Guys didn’t cook. But I did get involved, with my Dad and brothers, in food production. Our farm was a commercial grain operation in southern Minnesota. We produced mostly corn and soybeans. Dad also tried a few specialty crops (canning peas, for example). We also raised chickens and sold eggs for many years. And we always had a big garden.

When I moved away from home to attend college (University of Minnesota), I lived two years in a dorm. But when I moved into an apartment, I had to begin food preparation for myself. I never thought about it as a kid, but my standards for quality ingredients and flavor were determined by the good home cooking of my Mom. I couldn’t accept a lower standard just because I was on my own. So that’s when I started to learn to cook. (My first apartment roommate said he gained weight on my cooking.)

Food also is important to me professionally. I work for a food company, Land O’Lakes. You won’t get a lot of Land O’Lakes propaganda on this blog. But it’s a good company to work for and it has a reputation for quality products, and I am fairly defensive of the company.

Finally, food has been an important part of my family life as an adult. My wife is a very good cook. We don’t really compete in the kitchen. But we both have strong opinions about what constitute good cooking; fortunately we agree most of the time. When we go on vacation, we enjoy discovering new restaurants and local food specialties.

And my kids (both adults now) grew up to be good cooks too. My son worked his way through college at a local ice cream parlor, then a local whole foods co-op, and then at Al’s Breakfast, a small joint in Dinkytown at the University of Minnesota campus. He still works at Al’s as he prepares to become a paramedic. My daughter lives in Chicago. She is a fan of good cooking, too. And her fiancé is a cook at foodlife.

So I guess that’s about it. I hope you enjoy KriksPicks.

Steve