17 December 2007

Otho: New Pan-Asian restaurant in Minneapolis

I don’t often try a new restaurant until it’s been in business for a while. We’ve had a few disastrous experiences of eating at a new place before they have things running smoothly.

But in mid-December, a group of us decided to try Otho even though it had been open for less than a month. We picked the place because the son of one of the couples works there.

“Otho” is Otho Phanthavong, the executive chef. According to the restaurant’s web site, he has a respectable list of other good Minnesota restaurants where he’s cooked. Another of the partners, and the executive pastry chef at Otho, is Kristina Schubert. More about her later.

The physical setting for Otho is very attractive. It’s on the corner of a new high-rise condo complex. Elliot Park is an area of renovated brownstones and new construction at the edge of Minneapolis’ downtown. You walk in past a well-stocked bar. An attractive lounge area with tall windows and high ceilings occupies the corner providing an impressive view of an urbane setting. The dining room is comfortable and utilitarian, if somewhat sparse.

There were 9 of us in the group. Between us, we ordered most of the appetizers and entrées and all of the desserts. It’s a friendly group, so we passed the plates and shared.

Starters: We ordered chicken & mushroom eggrolls, duck confit fried dim sum, black tiger shrimp toasts, goat cheese puffs, and rice paper rolls. My favorites were the duck confit dim sum and the rice paper rolls. I thought the dim sum was more like an empanada, but I don’t often eat dim sum, so maybe it’s always like that. The duck confit filling was very moist and flavorful. We ordered a second round of these. The rice paper rolls were very light and delicate. We ordered a shrimp & basil roll; the flavors were great. I didn’t get a chance to taste the goat cheese puff, but it got good reviews around the table.

Entrées: We ordered chicken pad Thai, shrimp pad Thai, Cantonese braised short ribs, mock duck Wellington, rainbow trout en croute, seared Atlantic salmon, and black tiger shrimp green curry. The short ribs were fantastic – very tender and flavorful. They were served on a black bean puree with peppers and mushrooms. The server said it was a little spicy; I didn’t think it had much heat at all. As good as the ribs were, I thought the mock duck Wellington was the best entrée. It was unique and very flavorful. The shrimp curry also was very good. By the time it got to me, I mostly had the coconut milk sauce on rice, but the flavors were very good. I only had one bite of the salmon, but I really liked that as well. My least favorites were the pad Thais. There was nothing wrong with them, but I didn’t think they were as flavorful as the other dishes, nor were they in any way unique. I didn’t get to try the trout, but others around the table said it was great.

The desserts were flan, banana fritters, ice cream, and something else. I mentioned that one of the partners was the executive pastry chef. I assume she was responsible for the desserts. I only tasted the fritters, and I thought they were outstanding. I hope you can see from this photo the creative plating of the flan; the curly decoration is spun sugar.

At the beginning of the post, I mentioned the bar. We thought the drinks were very reasonably priced. All the guys in our group drank scotch and the prices for single malts were very affordable.

It’s not easy for a server to handle a group as big as ours. But if I were to quibble with anything, it would be that the service was a little slow. If the place had been busy, slow service would have been more understandable. And it wasn’t that the service was intolerable. It’s just that between the appetizers and the entrées, the delay was noticeable. Not that we minded much. We were having a fun time talking.

Otho is a fun, creative, and attractive restaurant. They plan to have sidewalk dining when the weather permits. That’s several months away for us in Minnesota. It would be fun to come back then and see how things are going.

29 November 2007

Another birthday dinner at Chambers Kitchen

Well, another birthday has come and gone. It’s always a little difficult to pick a restaurant for a birthday dinner when your birthday usually falls so close to Thanksgiving. But since my birthday was on Sunday after the holiday, I felt like I’d have a chance to work off the Thanksgiving feast before indulging in a birthday feast.

My wife and I had pretty much decided on a return visit to Chambers Kitchen. The clincher was a phone call she received from the restaurant. They had noted that we’d been there a year ago for my birthday, and they called to see if we’d like to eat there again this year. They offered us something that they call the Captain’s Table. We’d meet the evening’s chef, have a glass of Champaign, and learn about the entrées on the menu. We’d also get a tour of the kitchen.

So we made a reservation.

When we arrived, we were escorted to a bistro table just in front of the staging area of the kitchen. In a few minutes, our chef came out to meet us. (“My name is Eric,” he said, “Eric with an ‘A’.” So I guess it’s Aric.) He told us a little about his background (born in Wisconsin, trained in Chicago). He asked us what we ate last year. He told us about some new items on the menu that he thought we’d enjoy. Then we met another chef, Dave, who, we were informed, was preparing a foie gras appetizer for us. They seemed to be a little concerned that we would eat foie gras. We assured them that we most decidedly would.

We were escorted to our table and began to peruse the menu. Before too long, Dave came out with our special appetizer. It was a small morsel of foie gras pate served with a toast point and something Dave called a plum mustard. Tasted separately, the plum mustard and the foie gras each were wonderful. The foie gras was smooth and rich. The plum mustard was sweet and tangy. I liked them together. My wife preferred to eat each separately.

Not being sure just how this Captain’s Table thing was going to work, we decided to order a starter course from the menu. My wife asked our waiter about a couple of items, but they all were seasoned with cilantro. She commented that she’s sensitive to cilantro and so ordered the butternut squash soup instead. It was delicious and quite unlike any squash soup we’d eaten before. The squash soup we’re used to is thick and creamy. The soup served at Chambers Kitchen had a a good squash flavor but the broth was thinner. We thought was probably a chicken stock. I ordered the Kampachi sashimi. The fish was expertly sliced paper-thin. It was served with crumbles of fried garlic and a wonderful chili and sesame sauce.

One of the items on the menu that Aric had mentioned was char-grilled chicken served on mashed potatoes with a kumquat-lemongrass dressing. My wife decided that she would try it. I ordered the grouper with wok-fried Napa cabbage, water chestnuts, and cucumber. The wine we picked was Le Haut-Lieu sec Vouvray. We’re not very familiar with vouvray, so we asked the waiter. He commented that it would be a nice segue from the glass of Champaign and that it compliment Linda’s chicken very nicely.

While we were waiting for our entrée, we were surprised that another appetizer was delivered to our table. This one was on the menu – smoked bacon wrapped shrimp. Wow! It was succulent and very flavorful. The shrimp was firm but moist. The bacon wrap was very thin; it added flavor without overpowering the shrimp.

Not too long afterwards our meals arrived. By now, we both were feeling fairly satiated. As we dug in, we encountered our first, and really only, shortcoming. After her first taste of her meal, my wife commented, “This has cilantro in it.” We debated what to do. On the one hand, she was already full and didn’t really feel like eating a whole entrée. On the other hand, we felt disappointed. When we talked to our waiter about appetizers, we rejected a couple because they had cilantro in them. We felt like he should have made the connection and when Linda ordered the chicken, he should have mentioned that it had cilantro.

In retrospect, I also realized that we missed an opportunity. After all, we had spoken to the chef before we ordered. We could have noted Linda’s sensitivity and asked which meals were made without cilantro, or, alternatively, we could have asked if a particular item could be made without it.

As we discussed what to do, Dave came back and asked how things were. So we told him about Linda’s sensitivity to cilantro. He responded immediately and insisted on redoing the meal without it. It took a little while, but shortly he arrived with a redone meal, this time without the offending herb. Linda only ate a few bites, but was enjoyed the flavors and was satisfied with the way it worked out.

My fish was delightful. The stir-fried vegetables were very tasty. (They also were flavored with cilantro. I’m not a big fan, but I don’t have a sensitivity, like Linda does.) The fish was moist and flavorful. I probably could have finished the plate, but I also was full after all the appetizers, so I also had some leftovers on my plate. We had both mine and Linda’s boxed up and brought them home. (We had them for dinner later in the week.)

Needless to say, by now neither of us had room for dessert. Nevertheless, the waiter brought us a sampling of three sorbets when he brought the bill. I gave him a credit card. And when he brought the charge slip back to sign, he also brought along two different candies for us to sample.

So, I’ve said it before on Krik’s Picks, Chambers Kitchen is easily one of my top restaurants in Minneapolis, and this birthday dinner confirmed my earlier judgment. Even though we had the problem with the cilantro in Linda’s entrée, they handled it graciously, promptly, and satisfactorily. In terms of value, it was amazing. Even if you factor out the complimentary appetizers and other extras, we had plenty to eat and the cost was reasonable – certainly fair for the quality and amount of food we had.

After we’d finished, we went into the kitchen to say good-bye to Aric. As promised, he gave us a tour of the kitchen. We weren’t the last table to leave, but no one was cooking anymore, so it was pretty quiet. It was fun.

I have no qualms about recommending Chambers Kitchen for a celebratory meal anytime. If you have a chance to experience the Captain’s table, by all means do so.

26 November 2007

Award-winning cheese from Land O’Lakes

Every year, U.S. dairy farmers gather together at the National Milk Producers Federation annual meeting to review and discuss what’s happening in the dairy industry. The meeting draws more than 1500 dairy farmers and industry leaders from across the nation.

NMPF sponsors a cheese judging contest for the dairy cooperatives that are its members. On the first night of the meeting, they hold a welcome reception for everyone who’s in attendance. At that reception, we all get a chance to see which awards we won, see who else won awards, and best of all, we get to taste samples of the cheeses entered in the contest.

This year, Land O'Lakes won six awards. We won first place for mild cheddar and a low-fat provolone. We received second place for our sliced, processed Swiss-American and third place awards for aged cheddar, jalapeno-pepper processed cheese product, and sliced, processed reduced fat yellow American.

In the photo are Land O'Lakes CEO, the chairman of our board of directors, and the chief operating officer of our dairy processing operations. Our company executives really take a lot of pride in the quality of the cheese that’s made from our members’ milk.

Since we are a cooperative, our board is elected by the farmer-members; our chairman currently is a dairy farmer from eastern Wisconsin. The milk from his farm goes to our cheese plant in Kiel, Wis., and is used to make the award-winning cheddar cheeses at the contest.

(Cheese snobs generally sneer at the idea of ‘award-winning’ processed cheese. The video clip included with this post shows our chairman holding a piece of processed cheese and commenting that for him, a cheese sandwich made from processed cheese is comfort food, much to his daughter’s chagrin. This is the first time I’ve tried to post a video on Krik’s Picks.)

Sorry about the sound quality. If you didn't catch the punchline at the end, after his daughter said she didn't like the processed cheese, he told her, "Don't eat it then."

There were 122 entries from 11 cooperatives, and as you might guess, that adds up to a ton of cheese – literally. There was 2,284 pounds entered in the contest. Even though we eat a lot of cheese at the opening reception, there’s still a lot left after the meeting is over. Cheese that is uncut gets donated to Second Harvest. Apropos the next blog post, a lot of families who rely on food shelves in the Orlando area had some pretty good cheese for their Thanksgiving tables this year, courtesy of America’s dairy farmers and cooperatives.

20 November 2007

Enough food to feed a family for a week

Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to a very thought-provoking blog entry on the subject of cultural and economic responses to food.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, many of us are thinking about and planning our holiday feasts. The historical context of Thanksgiving was for Americans to acknowledge the bounty of the land. The significance of the observance was the fact that the bounty that they enjoyed was by no means assured. The early colonists were vulnerable to unfamiliar and hostile conditions that gave them no assurance that they could harvest and store enough food to stay alive.

When we modern Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week, it’s easy to forget that around the world, and in fact, in our own nation, some families still face uncertainty about having enough food to survive.

About a year ago, I attended a conference on the subject of hunger. It included food corporations, hunger relief organizations, religious institutions, and government. The goal was to create a dialogue that would lead to strategies for eliminating hunger.

I thought it was very interesting. But we didn’t very far toward the goal. In fact, from my perspective, I think we got hung up on a definition of what we wanted to solve, i.e., what is the definition of ‘hunger?’

Some of the presenters were adamant. We have a definition, and it’s based on the question of food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a survey to measure food security. It’s based on the perceptions of people as to whether or not they ‘had enough money for food.’

Other presenters pointed out that this limited definition makes hunger a consequence of poverty. Solve poverty, and you’ve solved hunger. But we know that’s not true.

There are at least two other causes for hunger. One is when food is not available. Even if you have money, if there’s nothing to buy, you go hungry. Famine is not something that Americans have had much experience with. The worst we experience is the occasional hurricane or other natural disaster that creates a panic that in turn empties the supermarket food shelves. Those incidents are fortunately rare and short-lived … in America. But elsewhere in the world, famine still is a frightening reality for many.

The second, terribly sad cause of hunger is poor nutritional choices. It’s shocking to me that the obesity epidemic in America is particularly prevalent among the poor. The widespread availability of cheap processed food that lacks nutritional balance leads to the paradox of overweight people who are simultaneously malnourished.

Which leads me back to the blog entry that stimulated this whole chain of thought. The blogger is a woman named Michelle Stern. She operates a business in San Francisco that offers healthy and seasonal cooking classes and birthday parties and she also has an online shop. On Halloween, she posted a blog about a book called “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.” A writer and photographer traveled to 24 nations and documented the dietary choices of 30 families. I haven’t seen the book yet. But the half dozen photos from the blog are dramatic and compelling.

It’s interesting to examine the similarities and contrasts of the food from families in the Western nations. The photos from Germany, Italy, the United States, even Poland dramatically show how much processed food we have in our diets. I was struck by the prevalence of soda pop in each of those photos.

The most expensive week’s worth of groceries on the blog entry is Germany, totaling more than $500 for a family of four. The U.S. family (North Carolina) is shown with $341 worth of food for a week, also for a family of four.

But the most compelling photos show the contrasts for families in developing nations. An Egyptian family of 12 = $68 for groceries for a week. A family of nine in Ecuador = $31 food for a week. And finally, the starkest contrast, from a refugee camp in Chad, a family of six = $1.23 food for a week.

The final thing that struck me about the photos is the smiles of the families. I hope I’m not projecting too much of my own values. But I interpret that to show a universal desire to provide food for your family. And if you’re able to do that, then you’ve got something to smile about.

Happy Thanksgiving.

07 November 2007

Dinner with a bunch of friends at Café Ena, Minneapolis

Earlier this year, my wife and I ‘discovered’ a new neighborhood restaurant. I had read about Café Ena and it sounded intriguing. It’s a sister restaurant to El Meson, which is one of our favorites for Caribbean and Spanish cuisine. We agreed that it would be fun to try it, but we didn’t have a specific date for doing it.

One evening, after seeing a movie, we decided to just drive by and take a look. It looked intriguing. On a whim, we decided to see if they had a table, and surprisingly they did.

Well, we loved it. The food was creatively prepared and attractively presented. The prices were reasonable. The décor is casual, the service is friendly. We returned a couple of more times, just the two of us, once with our daughter.

Here are a few highlights that we tried in those earlier visits:

Corriander-crusted ahi tuna served over serano mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, in an orange bell pepper cream sauce, garnished with a green apple fennel slaw.

Pan seared scallops served with a cauliflower and broccoli croquet, sautéed julienned vegetables, in a pomegranate plum sauce garnished with a jicama fennel slaw.

A braised lamb shank drizzled with adobo sauce, served with vegetables, beans and white rice.

So in early November, as we planned an evening out with a group of friends, we suggested Café Ena, and it was agreed we would go there.

We had a 7:30 reservation. When we arrived, our table wasn’t ready. With a group of 8, there’s not much to do but wait until the space clears. We opened a bottle of wine, and by the time we’d finished it, our table was ready.

When our group goes out, we usually have a lot of fun. Even so, we were hoping people would agree with our recommendation. A bad experience can put a damper on the evening, and though we’d had good experiences on your previous visits, we’d never been there with a large group.

Well, no worries. We had a blast.

We started by sharing some appetizers. Ena has a ‘ceviche duo,’ which is a creative combination of a traditional Mexican ceviche served with tortillas and a South American ceviche served with a plaintain fritter. We ordered a couple of those. Another unique specialty was the ‘queso fundido,’ which is a South American cheese that is fried and served with salsa. The third appetizer was fried calamari. They were very tender and tasty and was served with an avocado aioli.

For dinner, at our end of the table, we had the evening specials.

I had sea bass, seared and served over a mound of coconut risotto. It’s probably the most unusual meal I’ve had at Ena. The risotto was very rich and the coconut flavor gave the dish much more of a Caribbean flavor. My wife had duck breast. It was fantastic – very rich, flavorful, and tender. Our friend across the table had rack of lamb which was a half dozen nicely prepared lamb chops. I don’t know what everyone had at the other end of the table. But there wasn’t very much left on their plates.

Café Ena charges a corkage fee of $15/bottle if you bring your own wine. That’s what we did. It was fun to bring one of our favorite wines to share with the group, and our friends also brought some very nice wines. But one of the things I like about ordering wine at the restaurant is that’s how I discover new kinds that I like. Café Ena has a great wine list with lots of South American varieties. On our previous visits, we ordered off the wine list, and had great experiences.

This remains one of our favorite restaurants, and I would happily recommend it.

31 October 2007

A really entertaining food video clip

I figure that if a video clip makes me laugh out loud (LOL), it deserves a post on Krik’s Picks.

I’ve written before how the New York Times Dining & Wine section online is one of my favorites. I consider it a weekly ‘must read.’ And I’ve also written about the videos posted by Mark Bittman who writes a column called the Minimalist. Bittman has a video in this week’s edition. And it was entertaining. But the one that I really enjoyed was ‘Grillades & Grits’ a recipe by John Besh from New Orleans.

The video takes about 8 minutes, so click on it when you’ve got enough time to watch it. But there are two parts of it that I really enjoyed.

First, while he’s making the grits, he talks about adding first butter and then mascarpone cheese. He tells the viewer, in his laid-back, Louisiana accent, that ‘this looks like a lot of butter,’ and if you don’t want it, just don’t add it. Then he says, with a sly grin, “But it sure is good.”

I’ve never been a big fan of grits. But I had so much fun watching him make them in this video, I might give them another try.

The second part that made me laugh was when he’s cooking the grillades. He explained earlier that grillades are thin, little slices of pork. He then casually tells the viewer, “If you don’t eat pork, then use veal. And if you don’t eat veal, then use beef.” Then he pauses for a moment as if considering just how far he can take this, and he says, “If you don’t eat pork or veal or beef, well I feel sorry for you. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

I do like New Orleans, and I haven’t been there since Hurricane Katrina. This sure made me want to go.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

21 October 2007

Lunch at The Bad Waitress in Minneapolis

Ever since The Bad Waitress opened, I’ve been curious about it. How can you not be curious about a place that’s so sassy to call itself that? So when I met my wife and son for lunch on Eat Street, it was a perfect opportunity to give it a try.

When you walk in, you’re struck by the campy diner-style décor. It’s got a counter. It’s got booths. It’s got old movie posters and covers from comic books and photos of famous people. It’s got a jukebox. It’s got tschotschkes in every nook and cranny. Definitely a sensory overload.

So here’s the joke – the bad waitress is … YOU! When you enter the restaurant, you seat yourself, the menus are on the table, and you fill out your order and take it to the counter. I’m really not too keen on self service at a restaurant. I really don’t like places like Café Latte or French Meadow, where you go through a cafeteria line, pay, and then find a table. At least at The Bad Waitress, you get your table first, and after you place your order, a real server does bring you your food.

So what difference does it make? I like the idea of having someone who you can talk to and ask about specific menu items – “What’s good today? Is the Spyhouse Scramble better than the Flying Saucer? Can I get the Diablo Breakfast without any meat?” You get the picture. When you’re taking your own order, you have to come up with the answers on your own.

The other thing I can’t figure out is, how much do you tip when you do half the server’s work? At least, like I said, at The Bad Waitress a server does actually bring you your food. When we were there, I asked her to take our photo, which she did (though rather poorly). But at least there was something that I could justify giving a tip for.

So, setting aside décor and service, what really matters is the food. On our visit, we all ordered breakfasts. My son had a cheese omelet, which was the daily special – served with any two ingredients and hash browns; he had chorizo sausage and mushrooms. My wife had the Goat Cheese Omelet, with spinach and tomatoes. I had the Flying Saucer, with spinach, mushrooms, and brie. I also had hash browns.

I didn’t taste my son’s omelet, but he said it was very good. I thought my wife’s Goat Cheese Omelet was better than my Flying Saucer. The goat cheese added a distinctive flavor that was very good. My omelet, with brie, was a little bland. I thought the hash browns were good, but not as good as at Al’s Breakfast.

Despite my quibbles, I really did like The Bad Waitress. While we were there, I saw them serve some really nice looking sandwiches. I wouldn’t necessarily drive across town just to go there. But if I were in the neighborhood for breakfast or lunch or even just a glass of wine, I’d go again.

18 October 2007

An Autumn Memory

I saw a flock of seagulls in an athletic field the other day. We’ve had a lot of rain this month. So the ground is pretty soggy. I suppose the soggy soil caused the worms to come to the surface, and the birds flew down to enjoy a feast.

It reminded me of autumn and harvest on the farm. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I grew up on a farm. I learned how to drive a tractor when I was pretty young. After my dad got confident in my ability to control the machine, I would help out in the fall by plowing fields after they had been harvested.

Basically, from September on, I would spend weekends and often evenings after school on the tractor. Dad grew mostly corn and soybeans. After the combine had cleared the crop, the open field consisted of stubble and discarded stalks and hulls. I’d come along with the plow and turn over the brown stubble, burying the organic matter and reintegrating it with the soil, exposing rich, black soil. Gradually, slowly, the tractor making repetitive trips across the field, it would transform from brown to black.

This photo is posted on Flickr by Sandy Su. It illustrates nicely what often would happen while I was plowing. Flocks of seagulls would circle the tractor and plow and land on the freshly turned soil to pick out worms, insects, or other tasty treats. I always used to wonder – we were miles away from the nearest lake. What were these seagulls doing so far away from a body of water?

There was just one problem. The stubble and crop residue actually protect the soil from wind erosion during the winter. If you had a good snow cover, the snow would hold the soil. But during a dry winter, you could literally see the dirt blow off the fields.

Years later, I think after I left the farm to go to college, my dad adopted new conservation tillage techniques. Instead of a moldboard plow, he switched to a chisel plow. Instead of turning the soil under, it would break up the soil and aerate it while leaving the crop residue in place to reduce erosion over the winter. Dad was an early adopter of the practice, at least in our neighborhood.

Many years later, when Dad retired, his renter plowed the fields using a moldboard. Trying not to be judgmental, I asked Dad what he thought. “Well,” he said, “it’s kind of a step backwards. But it sure is nice seeing a nice black field again. I always thought that a chisel plowed field looked kind of junky.”

01 October 2007

Basil harvest 2007

Throughout the summer, I’ve written about the fresh herbs I’ve been harvesting from my garden. I have so many trees in my backyard, that I don’t really have a good place for a vegetable garden. But I can strategically plant a few plants of herbs in small plots that do get enough sun to thrive. I’ve got chives, oregano, mint, sage, and tarragon that come back every year. I also grow rosemary, parsley, thyme, and basil, which I plant fresh each year.

As the weather begins to turn cool in September, it seems like the herbs take on a heightened level of flavor and aroma. It’s like the plants anticipate the coming frost and in the face of impending doom, they decide to meet their fate just bursting with flavor.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to harvest a bunch of my basil and capture the flavors at their peak. To be honest, I waited a bit too long. The flavors were still wonderful, but some of the leaves had already started to get brown spots and to lose their intense green color.

I made two batches of pesto. The first was a walnut-basil pesto; I froze that batch. The second was a parsley-basil pesto with pine nuts. That evening, I made a pizza with pesto, black olives, and parmesan cheese.

We had a party coming up, and I decided to use some of the pesto to make an appetizer tart. For the crust, I used a technique from another tart recipe that I had. I took a sheet of store-bought puff pastry. I cut it in have to for two long, narrow strips. Then I rolled each piece into a 5x14-inch strip. Then I rolled up about a quarter-inch of the edge all around each strip. I brushed the bottom with beaten egg and pierced the bottom all over with a fork. Then I baked it at 400 degrees until it was golden. Even though I had pierced the bottom, it still puffed up, but the recipe said to just gently press down the bottom to form a crust for the tart.

To finish the tart, I spread pesto over the bottom of the crust. Next I arranged quartered pieces of artichoke hearts over the pesto and pieces of roasted tomatoes. I used a recipe that I learned from my sister. You could use sun-dried tomatoes instead – either oil-packed or dried tomatoes that have been soaked in boiling water for several minutes until they soften. Finally, I spread freshly-grated parmesan over the tomatoes and artichokes.

I put it into the oven, still at 400 degrees, until the cheese was melted and the filling was hot. I baked the tarts about 20 minutes before the party and let them cool. To serve, we cut the tarts into inch-wide strips. I thought they turned out nicely. (When our guests arrived, the tarts disappeared pretty quickly.) However, they were not quite firm enough for finger food. They would have been easier to eat on a plate with a fork.

A cocktail party with Greek/Mediterranean appetizers

In the post above, I wrote that I made a tart with pesto, artichoke hearts, roasted tomatoes, and parmesan cheese for a party that we hosted. After all the wedding entertaining, we decided that for this party, we needed help. So for the first time ever, we hired a caterer to make some of the food and to provide help in the kitchen during the party.

For the catering, we hired Georgia Sander. According to her web site, she’s been doing catering in the Twin Cities for 18 years. She also owns a restaurant in Dinkytown, Kafé 421.

We selected three items from her catering menu. She made crostinis with a variety of toppings, including goat cheese, eggplant, and roasted peppers. We had meat and vegetarian dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) with tsatsiki (yogurt, cucumber, garlic, oregano) sauce. The third choice was chicken breast filled with spinach and herbs, rolled and wrapped in phyllo. Then the breasts were cut into appetizer-size portions and served with a roasted red pepper sauce.

Besides the items we got from Georgia and my tart, my wife made little wonton cups filled with a cream cheese/cheddar cheese mixture and baked. (Really yummy!) We put out a variety of crackers with three kinds of cheese – a brie, a stilton, and manchego. And we had a variety of fancy olives and a bowl of cashews.

We were really lucky. It had been rainy most of the day. But by evening, it dried off and was very mild, so our guests felt comfortable sitting outside for much of the evening. After it was over, we felt we were better able to enjoy the party because we had someone to help in the kitchen. We definitely will do that again.

13 September 2007

Thank you for buying Land O'Lakes!

I wasn’t going to do a blog posting on my daughter’s wedding. Even though it was an extended length of days filled with food, drink, laughter, music, and dancing, I didn’t think it really fit in a food blog. Then, on the last day, I took this photo, and realized this belongs in Krik’s Picks.

This was taken at the Minneapolis Marriott Southwest where we had most of the wedding activities. The hotel had a buffet brunch and people gathered there before leaving town to say goodbye to the bride and groom before everyone returned home. The butter offered on the buffet was LAND O LAKES Continentals. I had my daughter hold one up while I snapped this photo of her and her groom. It reminded me of a story from her childhood.

When my daughter was a little girl (well, she still is, but what I mean is much younger), we went to a friend’s house for dinner. During the meal, she disappeared from the table for a few minutes. It turns out, she’d gone to the refrigerator to see what brand dairy products were in there. When she returned, she sweetly said: “Thank you for buying Land O'Lakes!”

I suppose it’s inevitable that a wedding weekend is going to revolve around food and eating. For us, it began three days before the wedding, when my daughter and her groom arrived from Chicago. We did an extensive grocery run to fill the house with all the food we’d need for the various events.

That evening, we grilled salmon for our family – my daughter and her groom, my son, his wife, and their daughter, and me and my wife. I served a black bean and red lentil ragout with the salmon.

The next day, the groom’s family, many of our out-of-town guests, and most of the groomsmen and bridesmaids arrived. We hosted a barbecue at our house – grilled hamburgers, turkey burgers, and Boca Burgers and a big pasta salad.

The day after that was the rehearsal at the hotel. In the evening, the groom’s parents hosted a wonderful meal at Stella’s Fish House. It was outstanding! The event was in a party room on the 3rd floor of the restaurant. The décor was fabulous with nice views of Uptown Minneapolis. All of the entrées were great. My wife and I had the stuffed grouper, which was to die for! They also had salmon roasted on a cedar plank and chicken ala Oscar. Stella’s has a rooftop open air bar, which was one floor up from our party room. Many guests stepped out during the evening to enjoy the warm air, party atmosphere, and views of Minneapolis.

Then came the wedding day. The Marriott did a fantastic job. We offered our guests three choices – chili-crusted sea bass, New York strip steak, or caramelized chicken. I was surprised how many people chose the steak. I thought the most popular would be the fish or the chicken and only a few would choose steak. But in fact, as many people chose steak as fish, and only a few people chose chicken. It’s not easy to serve that many steaks and maintain the quality. But I didn’t hear any complaints about overdone meat. (If any of our guests who read this blog had a problem with their food, please let me know.)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there was a brunch at the hotel the morning after the wedding. After almost everyone had left town, we still had a few family members. So that evening, we went to Punch Neapolitan Pizza for a casual family dinner. They make a point of serving simple, authentic pizzas in a wood-fired hearth.

That was pretty much the end of the celebration. The next day, we returned the tuxes, returned the vases to the florist, and settled up with the hotel. We had a nice dinner at home alone that evening, and the next day, I went to Washington for work.

Lentil & Black Bean Ragout

I used to make this recipe very regularly when my children were experimenting with being vegetarian. It's very tasty and very easy to prepare. I always go through the exercise of soaking dried beans and cooking them. But if you want to simplify and streamline preparation of this dish, then you could use canned black beans.

I've always made this dish with red lentils. As I prepare it for posting on Krik's Picks, I'm a little surprised to see that it doesn't specify red lentils. The red lentils add a vibrant color to the dish. If you used green lentils, I think it would be quite drab. When I prepared this on my daughter's wedding weekend, I garnished it with minced parsley and chive blossoms.

Lentil & Black Bean Ragout

Recipe By : Good Housekeeping, July 1993
Serving Size : 4 Preparation Time :1:00
Categories : Beans

Amount Measure Ingredient -- Preparation Method
-------- ------------ --------------------------------
1 large carrot -- diced
1 small onion -- diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup lentils
2 teaspoons chicken bouillon
2 cups black beans, cooked
1 1/2 cups water

Dice carrots and onion and saute until tender. Stir in lentils, vegetable broth, and water. Heat to boiling, cover, and simmer 25-30 minutes. Mix black beans with lentils and heat through.

09 September 2007

Lunch at Spill the Wine in Minneapolis

I’ve been reading a lot about this place. It’s in a hip, developing area of Minneapolis, just about two blocks from the new Guthrie Theater. So when my guest blogger, Patty Miller, and I decided to meet for lunch recently, this was on my list of places to try.

We met on a gorgeous September afternoon for lunch. It was a great excuse to be out of the office. For me, getting to the restaurant was a little weird. In the past, I would have come south from my office on I-35W, crossed the Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota, and taken the Washington Avenue exit. But since August, that route has been impossible due to the collapse of the 35W bridge across the Mississippi. It felt strange driving south on 35W, knowing that in just a few miles, the road would end so abruptly.

I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes before Patty. The décor is comfortable and casual. It has a warehouse feel with an open setting, exposed brick walls, high ceilings and hardwood floors. There weren’t many people there for lunch, so I had my choice of tables.

Some of the online reviews fault the restaurant for inconsistent service. I found the service to be friendly and accommodating. Of course, with a slow lunch crowd, that probably is to be expected. My server checked in with me, appropriately, to see if I wanted anything until Patty arrived. When she did arrive, the server also was prompt in checking to see what we wanted.

In fact, we did order the daily special flight of wine. Since both of us were returning to work after lunch, this seemed like a nice accommodation. We got to select three 2-ounce samples of wine from the specials listed on a chalk board. Our server advised that we had to try the Malbec. The other two were a Malbec rose and another French red.

For lunch, Patty ordered the Cobb salad. It was roasted chicken, bacon, tomato, gorgonzola cheese, avocado, and egg with parmesan buttermilk dressing. She said,”The Cobb salad was okay - not the best I've had. I like it when the different ingredients are more separated and you can mix them in as much or as little as you like. There were maybe 4 thin slices of avocado and a few crumbles of bacon.”

I had a niçoise salad. It had several unique features. For one, it didn’t have green beans, which seems to be generally regarded as an identifying feature of a niçoise salad. When I ordered it, the server asked how I wanted the tuna prepared. I thought that was a nice feature. I asked for it seared. I think she was a little taken aback because she asked for clarification – seared as in just cooked briefly on each side. I confirmed that’s how I wanted it. That’s how it was served, and I thought it was very good. The dressing also was unusual. Rather than a classic French vinaigrette, it was a sesame and soy sauce base. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Patty and I agreed that the portion sizes were adequate, but not generous. Actually, I’m ok with that. I don’t like it when restaurants serve huge portions that just don’t seem appropriate especially for a lunch. If you try Spill the Wine and want a bigger lunch, then I would suggest ordering a cup of soup or splitting a pizza.

Just a quick conclusion relative to service. After Patty and I ordered our wine, our server seemed surprised that we also wanted lunch. I’m not sure why she thought that maybe we just wanted wine at 12:30 on a Friday afternoon. Also, I had to ask for a basket of bread. We agreed that the bread was very ordinary. It was served with herbed butter, which was tasty, but also not particularly noteworthy.

All in all, while the overall experience had a few shortcomings, I liked Spill the Wine well enough to try again some time. I think it might be good for an after-work get together with coworkers.

22 August 2007

Kabul – Afghan restaurant in Madison, Wis.

I’ve written before about how much I like the restaurant scene in Madison. The city just offers so much variety – ethnic styles, different price ranges, different ambiance. So when we hit the road in July for an overnight trip to Madison, I had to admit feeling a sense of frustration. Our reason for going was to join in a family celebration with some friends. But there wasn’t going to be time to break away from the celebration to try any new restaurants.

My dilemma was solved by the decision to drive straight through and get lunch in Madison, even though it would be a little later than we normally would have lunch. There were four of us on this road trip – me, my wife, her sister (Tammie), and her sister’s husband (Phil).

Tammie attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So she had her own itinerary planned – basically a stroll down memory lane. My wife also had her own plans – visiting a young friend who’d recently had a baby. So Phil and I were on our own for lunch.

We parked near Capitol Square and began a leisurely stroll down State Street, checking out places to eat as we went along. It was a pretty hot day, but we wanted to eat outside, if possible. That meant that we decided not to eat at several places along the way because while they had sidewalk dining, there was no shade to provide relief from the heat.

We had gone several blocks and were nearing the beginning of the U-W campus when we found Kabul Afghanistan Restaurant. It wasn’t a totally random choice. Phil had eaten there recently when he brought his son, Eli, to Madison to tour the campus.

Phil eats primarily vegetarian and I like creative vegetarian dishes, too, especially for lunch. Kabul has a great selection of beef, chicken, and fish as well as vegetarian. But we both picked vegetarian lunches.

Phil had the vegetarian burani. It consisted of sautéed eggplant topped with vegetables and served with yogurt and fresh mint. I had a vegetarian couscous – a medley of carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, potatoes green peppers, and garbanzo beans served over couscous. Both lunches were very tasty and filling. They were served with a small salad and pita.

After lunch, we reconnected with our wives and got ready for the celebration we came to enjoy. It was a fun weekend, and I’m glad we had a chance to visit another of Madison’s fun, tasty, and unique eateries.

17 August 2007

The Café, Ames, Iowa

By Guest Blogger Patty Miller

When I was a student at Iowa State University in Ames, Aunt Maude’s was THE place to go for a special dinner – especially if the parents were paying. With its funky, Victorian charm, fabulous strawberry daiquiris (made with fresh berries) and well-prepared classic American fare like London broil and au gratin potatoes, Aunt Maude’s kept us coming back for more than 30 years.

So you can imagine our dismay when my college roommates and I made a pilgrimage to ISU in late July only to learn that Aunt Maude’s was closed for remodeling. Where would we eat? Ames is definitely not a hotbed of haute cuisine. More like hot dogs. The person at Aunt Maude’s who took our call must have sensed our disappointment and recommend Maude’s “sister” restaurant, a slightly more casual bistro called The Café.

First we had to find the place, which is located in a re-creation of a Midwestern downtown about 10 blocks north of Ames’ real downtown. The faux city center is the heart of a new housing development, which was a cornfield the last time we were in town. It’s actually kind of cool, and The Café is the attraction any downtown ― old or new ― needs to draw visitors.

Dark-red brick on the outside, it’s all dark wood, dim lighting, shutters and coziness on the inside. Just off the dining room is an order counter where you can carry out or eat in with minimal service. A long, narrow bar on the other side opens into an “alley,” an inviting space between two buildings to sip a well-mixed cocktail.

The Café touts its “local, in-season produce and homemade artisan breads and desserts.” The menu isn’t extensive, but offers a nice selection (featuring that local produce and artisan breads) of soups, starters, sandwiches, salads and entrees. Here’s where you notice the sibling resemblance between Maude’s and The Café – the food isn’t fancy or uber creative, but it’s well presented and delicious. And reasonably priced by Minneapolis standards – nothing was over $20.

Our group started with one of the simple appetizers – bruschetta served on house-baked flatbread. For entrées, we ordered the stuffed green pepper with a seasoned-just-right filling and dotted with tangy feta cheese; chicken drizzled with a rich, complex mole sauce and served with wild rice; and butter-knife-tender beef tournedos with garlicky mashed potatoes.

Of course we had to sample the desserts. It was refreshing that the portions weren’t gargantuan – just enough to have a little sweet at the end of the meal. The fresh raspberry tart was tasty, the tropical fruit tort was light and refreshing, yet moist and flavorful, but neither was anything to write home about. Our fave ― the dark-chocolate crème brûlée ― was velvety smooth with a crackly crisp sugar top.

Would we go back? In fact, we did – the next day when we dropped in and ordered hearty sandwiches at the counter. While our service in the evening – both in the bar and the dining room – was attentive and pleasant, the order-counter service was surly, bordering on rude. From other reviews of The Café, this unfortunately seems to be a pattern.

But next time you’re heading down I-35, make a quick detour into Ames and check out The Café, proof that you can find well-prepared food in the middle of corn country.

P.S. Aunt Maude’s is scheduled to reopen in the fall.

The Café

2616 Northridge Parkway

Ames, IA


16 August 2007

Another visit to Barbette

The very first restaurant that I reviewed on Krik’s Picks was Barbette in south Minneapolis near Lake Calhoun. A year later, my wife and I came back to Barbette under very much the same circumstances. I took a day off. Linda went for a walk; I went for a bike ride. We read the paper and had coffee. Then we went to the Museum of Russian Art.

Since I’ve already written about the concept behind Barbette, I won’t repeat myself now. (Click here to read my review from August 2006.)

On this visit, we each started with a glass of wine. Linda ordered a Bordeaux blanc – Chateau Le Tuileries, Andre Brunel, Domaine Becassone. It was fantastic – a little buttery like a chardonnay but still relatively light and refreshing. I had a Malbec El Portillo from Argentina. I enjoyed it very much.

We both had specials for our lunches.

Linda had the daily scramble – sausage and Portobello mushrooms scrambled with eggs. The flavors were very complimentary. The sausage was not too spicy, and the mushrooms provided an earthy balance.

I had the daily luncheon special – pan-fried lamb served with a salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, 'sunburst squash' (also called pattypan) and beets. The lamb was outstanding. It was seared with a crusty exterior and a rare, tender interior. Linda said it was too rare for her, but I gave her a bite of an end piece, and she agreed it was wonderful. The salad also was good. It didn’t compete with the lamb and the goat cheese provided a pungent compliment to the meat. I don’t particularly like beets, so I didn’t eat the tender cubes of red beets in the salad.

The portions are not particularly large. For my lunch, it may have been about a third of a pound of lean lamb cut into four slices. Linda’s scramble was probably two eggs. But we left feeling very comfortable with our appetites satisfied. And the prices were reasonable - $12 for my lamb, $8.50 for Linda’s scramble.

I love having a reliable place like Barbette that we can return to with the confidence that we will get a good meal.

27 June 2007

Poste Brassiere, Washington, DC

When I first started Krik’s Picks, I thought I’d be writing a lot more frequently about restaurants in Washington, DC. After all, as I explained in a post on August 31, I travel to Washington regularly for my work at Land O'Lakes. In fact, the name of the blog comes from DC restaurant recommendations that I’ve made for friends, co-workers, and colleagues. So I’m a little surprised myself that I haven’t actually written about too many DC restaurants. As of today, out of 39 restaurant reviews, I’ve written about 12 California restaurants and 18 Minneapolis/St. Paul restaurants. With today’s post, I’ll have five reviews of DC restaurants.

I think that part of the problem is that often in DC, my dinners are working dinners. We don’t necessarily pick a restaurant for its innovative food, and since we spend the meal talking business, I don’t always do a good job of noting my reactions to the food.

Well, not this time. Today I’m writing about Poste Brassiere, located in the Hotel Monaco in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington. A small group of us from Land O'Lakes found ourselves at loose ends after the first day of a conference we were attending. I was assigned the job of finding a good place to eat. I had heard of Poste, and after checking it out on the internet and in the Where Magazine for DC, I suggested we go there. It was an easy four block walk from the hotel where we were staying.

Based on what I’d read, I described the place to the other diners as ‘innovative American.’ I was challenged to define what that meant. Poste describes itself as contemporary brasserie – hardly more descriptive. I still think my description is more accurate. Traditionally, a French brasserie is more formal than a bistro but doesn’t have all of the features of a full-fledged restaurant. Often at a brassiere, menu items are complete meals rather than individual courses like you see at a restaurant.

But the fact is that in America, we hang the labels ‘brasserie,’ ‘bistro,’ café, etc. on the names of eating establishments without much thought about the traditional definition or presumed differences between them. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the same is true in France.)

When I describe Poste as ‘innovative America,’ I mean creative combinations of flavors, not too heavy on sauces, artful presentation, and easily recognizable menu items. Here’s what we had at Poste. You be the judge if it fits my description.

The three of us started by splitting two appetizers – a grilled kielbasa cut into thirds and a very nice selection of house-made charcuterie. The starters overcame any hesitancy my friends might have had about Poste; they quit caring if it was ‘innovative American’ or ‘contemporary brasserie.’ I thought the charcuterie plate was particularly good. The selection offered a nice variety of styles, and the flavors were also varied,

Both of my compatriots had the hanger steak and ‘pommes frites.’ Hanger steak is a traditional bistro fare. My carnivorous friends loved the steak served at Poste. It was tender, excellently prepared, very flavorful. Pommes frites are often defined as French fries. But the wonderfully prepared, crisp potatos served with the steak at Poste bore very little resemblance to the typical, greasy, mealy fries served at many American restaurants. These were truly exceptional. When we ordered, our server asked if we wanted the frites to be sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Hey! She was talking to a milk producer and a couple of Land O'Lakes staff. Of course we wanted them with parmesan. Wow! That was a fabulous addition.

I decided to go for a fish entrée. I ordered wild bass served with a potato mash (the menu calls it ‘champ’ potatoes) and caper beurre noisette. I didn’t know what that sauce was either. It was light and nutty and the capers added a tangy flavor that really enhanced the fish. So as I was writing this blog, I looked it up. Beurre noisette is a simple butter sauce. The butter is cooked over a gentle heat until the solids separate and begin to brown. It was a great meal.

One of our group was from California, so I asked him to select the wine. He picked a 2003 Clos du Val merlot. It was an excellent choice.

My rep as a restaurant picker in DC was maintained. Poste Brasserie – give it a try.

23 June 2007

Dinner at Lucca, Sacramento, CA

A business trip to Sacramento provided me with an opportunity to see my cousin and her husband and my aunt who live in nearby Dixon. Since I didn’t have a car, they drove in to see me. I got to pick the restaurant for dinner.

I love Google. After my business meeting, I typed in the address for my hotel and got a map of my neighborhood. I clicked on ‘search nearby’ for restaurants, and got a list of possibilities with their locations indicated in concentric circles on the map. Then I clicked on different results to see which ones seemed most promising.

One was Michelangelo’s. I went there last September when I stayed in the same neighborhood. I really liked it, and I considered taking my relatives there. But I also like to try new places, so I kept on searching.

What I came up with was Lucca. It has its own attractive web site with its menus posted. I also found an intriguing entry in the Sacramento Bee’s food blog that noted that Lucca had become one of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s favorite restaurants. So besides good buzz on food, there was the possibility of a star sighting. That was enough for me.

It was a beautiful, warm Sacramento evening. We were offered a table on the outdoor patio, which we readily accepted. We started with a couple glasses of wine. My cousin’s husband and I ordered a Lucca sangiovese grown in Santa Barbara. It was a very affordable, drinkable wine. My aunt ordered a Spanish sauvignon blanc. She was somewhat chagrined to be ordering a Spanish wine in California, but she enjoyed it.

My aunt ordered the evening specialty. It was a pan roasted halibut topped with a corn and sweet pepper relish and served with sautéd beans and pesto potatoes. My cousin ordered pan-seared salmon with cherry tomato butter over mashed potatoes. Her husband had the cioppini – mussels, clams, prawns, fresh fish in a tomato chili broth topped with toasted bruschetta and drizzled with lemon garlic aioli. I started with a Lucca house chop salad which consisted of radicchio and romaine tossed with lemon oregano vinaigrette and feta cheese. For my meal, I had chicken risotto with field mushrooms and fontina cheese.

The two fish dishes looked like the best meals. The fish was nicely prepared and there was a complimentary variety of vegetables on the plate. The cioppini looked very good. The tomato chili broth was a little spicy, unexpectedly so, but very tasty. I thought my salad was good, but the vinaigrette needed more flavor. Someday, I’ll learn to heed my wife – she always says I make better risotto than most restaurants. I enjoyed my risotto, but it was a little soupier than I make at home, the chicken was good but not memorable, and overall, it lacked any distinctive flavor. That sentence makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy it. I really did. But I wished I would have had one of the fish entrées … or the other risotto on the menu sounded good, too. It was saffron, seafood risotto.

I really liked the ambiance of Lucca. The dining room is decorated with original art. One of the things I read on-line was that the space was originally a pottery studio. So it has a rustic feel to it. The diners were generally young and hip. It was a wonderful, relaxing evening, and it was great catching up with my cousin on family news.

Sacramento postscript

I flew home from Sacramento on Friday morning. Traveling east, I lost two hours, so I arrived home mid-afternoon. Our son and his family were coming for dinner. I decided to make the risotto recipe below for dinner. The recipe is from the July Bon Appetit magazine. They suggest serving it with grilled shrimp. We did grilled chicken instead, and it made a great meal. I only made one change. The recipe suggests making the herb paste with butter. To me, it looked like a pesto, so I used a good, Spanish olive oil instead. The basil and parsley were fresh from my garden.


cups (loosely packed) fresh baby spinach leaves
½ cup (loosely packed) fresh basil leaves
½ cup (loosely packed) fresh Italian parsley leaves
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 garlic clove, sliced
2 cups low-salt chicken broth
2½ cups water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium leek (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced
1½ cups short-grain rice (such as arborio) or medium-grain rice
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for serving

Blend first 5 ingredients in processor until thick paste forms. Bring broth and 2½ cups water to simmer in saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to very low; cover to keep warm.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add leek; sauté until soft, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add rice; stir until heated through, about 3 minutes. Add wine; simmer until absorbed, stirring often. Add warm broth mixture 1 cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding next and stirring often, until rice is tender but still firm to bite, about 20 minutes. Cover; remove from heat. Let stand 3 minutes. Uncover; stir in herb paste, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately in warm bowls, passing additional Parmesan cheese alongside.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Bon Appétit
July 2007
Janet Fletcher

Epicurious.com © CondéNet, Inc. All rights reserved.

Also, with the risotto and grilled chicken, my wife made this chilled pea salad. The recipe appeared in the StarTribune. It's a quick, easy, refreshing, good-tasting, light salad. She makes it, naturally, with fresh mint from our garden.


Serves 4.

1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 head bibb lettuce (about 9 oz.), washed well and torn into bite-size pieces
1 c. frozen peas, thawed
½ c. fresh mint leaves, torn into bite-size pieces

In a large bowl, whisk together lemon juice and mustard. Whisk in oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add lettuce, peas and mint. Toss to coat.

The New York Times Dining & Wine Section

I’ve added a new link in the left-hand panel of Krik’s Picks, below the archive. It’s the New York Times Dining & Wine section. It is probably my favorite on-line newspaper food section. I always make a point of reading it every Wednesday. I don’t spend a lot of time with the restaurant reviews because I seldom travel to New York City. On the other hand, I get a lot of recipes from the site, and I have found the recipes that I try to be consistently good and deliver tasty results. They also have articles by and about major chefs and cookbook authors.

I’ve got a couple of columnists that I read regularly. One of the other links on Krik’s Picks is The Pour by the Times’ wine columnist, Eric Asimov. Another columnist is The Minimalist by Mark Bittman. So far, I haven’t read an explanation as to why Bittman calls his column The Minimalist. It may be because his recipes generally are simple and quick to prepare.

The other thing I love about Bittman’s column is that he usually has a video with it. In the video, he demonstrates a cooking technique, how to use a specific ingredient in a recipe, or simply makes a point about cooking. He has a really quirky sense of humor and the videos often include some funny production techniques.

I searched ‘cooking’ on YouTube and looked at a few of the cooking videos there. Some of the clips were straight from the Food Network. Some were entertaining, but not instructive. I didn’t see anything that combined practical cooking advice with an entertaining on-screen presence as well as The Minimalist.

The Minimalist has an archive of his clips on the NYTimes Food & Wine web site. So one day, I decided to review some of the columns that I missed or that appeared before I started reading him. I found a great one that brought back wonderful memories for me.

Apparently as part of a series on food around the world, Bittman traveled to Spain and did a video on preparing classic Spanish paella. During the video, he visits the central market in Valencia. His reaction on the video was the same as mine when my wife and I visited Spain in 2001.

Our daughter enrolled for a summer term in Spain following her junior year at Florida State. That created an opportunity for us to visit Spain. We spent a couple of days in Madrid and then traveled to Barcelona by train. Our daughter met us there, and we spent a week enjoying the Catalan culture and food and the remarkable architecture of Barcelona. Then we went by train to Valencia where our daughter was going to study.

After getting her settled in her dormitory (which was far more modern than her dorm at FSU), she turned to us and told us, politely but firmly, that we could go now. Somewhat crestfallen, we went back to the central city where we were staying. (Her school was on the outskirts of town, about six blocks from the beach.)

We had a couple of days to explore Valencia before we returned to the USA. One of those days, we wandered into the Central Market. It was fabulous. Row upon row of vendors selling everything imaginable for Spanish cooking. There were beautiful displays of cheese. I was especially impressed by the fresh mozzarella. There were meat vendors and fish mongers. Lots of fresh vegetables. Lots of local olive oil and vinegar vendors. And then, there were the spices – huge mounds of paprika, precious packets of saffron, pepper corns, sea salt, you name it and it was there.

Like Bittman in his video, it was an almost irresistible temptation to buy stuff and bring it along home. As it was, I limited myself to a container of olive oil and a small amount of Spanish saffron.

Valencia is Spain’s third largest city. It has an interesting history and a charming central city including a bull ring. We had a great visit. On the evening before we left for home, Valencia celebrated the festival of the “Virgen de los Desamparados” in the square near the cathedral. We listened to music and watched dancers until late into the evening.

After it was over, as we made our way back to our hotel, we suddenly heard someone call out, “Mom! Dad!” It was our darling daughter, sitting with a large group of new friends around tables outside a café on the square. She came over and gave us a hug and a kiss good-bye.

The next day, when we left for home, we felt assured that she would be all right and she was and she had a wonderful time and a great experience.