31 August 2010

MN State Fair: Feeding Frenzy

I went to the state fair for the first time in about 10 years. When people at the office heard that it had been so long since going, they said, “But Steve, you’re such a foodie. How can you not go to the state fair.”

Well first of all, I’m not sure that I really am a ‘foodie.’ Secondly, if I were a foodie, I’m not sure that the state fair qualifies as food nirvana.

Being a cheapskate, I got into the fair for free. (As a volunteer at the milk booth, see the next post below.) I also parked at the free ‘Park & Ride’ lot by the University of Minnesota football stadium.

I arrived at about 9 a.m. My shift at the milk booth didn’t start until 10, so I had time for breakfast. I wandered around, and thought about eating at one of the full service restaurants. I’ve never done that before. While I was walking, I passed a table where they were handing out samples of Motts applesauce. So that was my first state fair food – free.

Next I saw the booth for Axel’s Bonfire. They offered a breakfast wrap that sounded kinda good. It had eggs, cheese, sausage, and bacon. Of course, it was deep fried. It tasted ok, but it didn’t really have to be deep fried. It was reasonable, however: $4.

I wanted coffee with the wrap, but Axel’s didn’t have any. However, they directed me to French Meadow down the street. Actually, if I had known that French Meadow had a booth, I might have skipped the breakfast wrap. But I went there and got a $2 cup of organic coffee. Meh. I’ve had better.

I still had a little time to kill, so I had one of my favorite state fair treats – Tom Thumb donuts. I can’t help it. I love ‘em. $4.

After working for a while in the milk booth, I was told to go on break. So I wandered back to the French Meadow. I had their risotto fritters. They were good; probably the second best thing I ate at the fair. (Tom Thumb donuts are unbeatable.) They were lightly breaded and fried. They had a nice Swiss cheese and mushroom filling. I didn’t think there was much flavor from the risotto, however. There were three fritters – on a stick – served with a small container of marinara sauce; $5.

I also went across the street from French Meadow to Moon Beam Coffee where I had a double espresso - $2. It was a very enjoyable. A lot better than the coffee I’d had earlier at French Meadow. They’re on Facebook. But otherwise, there’s not much info on who they are.

I went back to the milk booth to finish my shift. After it was over, I had a corn dog - $3. I was glad I did it. It reminded me why I should never eat corn dogs. Yuck.

The last food item I had was a sample of Bongard’s cheese curds. They were being served at the Moo Booth (dairy barn). Free.

That was it. Oh, I did have a couple of beers. One after the fritters (and before the espresso). The other after the corn dog. The first was a Leinie Red, and the second was Blue Moon. Each were $4.

Oops. I forgot to have a milk. Oh well, there’s always next year.

Postscript: Total attendance at the fair that day was 113,637. I only talked to three people who I knew. I did see Rep. Keith Ellison. But he didn’t see me, and I don’t think he knows who I am anyway. Also, someone greeted me by name at the milk booth. Of course, I was wearing a name tag. But he referenced a retired co-worker, so I think he really did know me. I, on the other hand, didn’t have a clue who he was.

30 August 2010

All the Milk You Can Drink for $1

I volunteered at the All the Milk You Can Drink booth at the Minnesota State Fair on Monday, Aug. 30. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for a few years now. Though I used to attend the state fair regularly, I hadn’t been for about 10 years. This seemed like a good excuse to go to the state fair while also helping out the dairy industry.StateFairMilkBooth2010

The milk booth is a project of the Midwest Dairy Association. The University of Minnesota Ag Education Club organized the volunteers. In the weeks leading up to the fair, when I would mention that I was volunteering in the milk booth, I was surprised by how many people commented that it  was one of their favorite parts of the fair. It also gets mentioned frequently as one of the best bargains at the fair.

When I arrived for my shift, the morning volunteers got our orientation. As you might expect, hygiene and sanitation is a major consideration. The supervisor went through the rules – each customer pays $1 for their first glass of milk. They can have as many refills as they want. But they can’t share the glass with others, and they can’t come back later for more refills. Make sure you make the correct change. Watch out for scammers – they give you a $10 and when you give them their change, they claim they gave you a $20. (We were told to keep the original payment on the counter until we’ve given the customer his change.) We could accept anything up to $20. If someone wanted to pay with a $50 or $100, we had to call a supervisor.

I did get one guy who said the only bill he had was $100. He stood there and drank three glasses of milk (two white, one chocolate) while the shift supervisor looked over the bill to make sure it was legit. Then he got $99 change and went on to the rest of the fair.

One kid who bought a glass of chocolate milk from me had what looked like a Mohawk haircut that was growing back out. So it was pretty distinctive. When he came back for a second glass, he said “That wasn’t me who was up here a few minutes ago.” “Yes it was,” I said. “I recognize your haircut.” When he came back for his next glass, I said to him, “Your brother was here just a minute ago. He looks just like you.” The kid said, “No, that was me.” When he came back for a fourth glass I said, “Wow. Four glasses. You must be pretty thirsty.” “No,” he said. “We have eight in our family, but my dad said he doesn’t want a glass.” Oh. That was the last glass he got from me.

I had several people ask for half white and half chocolate. So I started asking which they wanted me to pour first. One kid said it didn’t matter, so I said, “How do you know? For this glass, I’ll put in white first and then chocolate. For your next glass, I’ll put in the chocolate first. Then you can tell me which is better.” Sure enough, when he came back for his second glass, he reminded me to put in the chocolate first.

Sometimes, a customer would ask for one white and one chocolate. “Which do you want first,” I’d ask. Most just acted confused by the question. But one kid was very definite - “Chocolate first.” I poured the chocolate and asked, “Whose is this?” “Mine,” he said. I poured the white. “Whose is this,” I asked. “His,” the kid said, nodding toward his dad. Then he put $2 on the counter. “You’re paying?” I asked. “Yup,” said the kid. “Cool,” I replied.

With breaks and everything, I worked for only about 2 1/2 hours. I sold 166 cups. But I couldn’t keep track of how many refills. The most refills I counted was four (not counting the kid who was actually sharing his milk with his family).

16 August 2010

Salsa contest: Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa

As one of the activities during our Employee Celebration Day at work, the Diversity Council organized a salsa contest. That’s salsa the dip, not salsa the dance. It sounded like fun. So I organized a team. We had two of the attorneys from our Law Dept., my summer intern, and me.

I may have gone a little overboard in planning. But what the heck. A contest is a contest, and the goal is to win, isn’t it? Our strategy was to select a recipe that included some unusual ingredients, so that it would stand out from the pack. We decided not to go with a fruit salsa. The entries would be sampled with tortilla chips, and I think of fruit salsas as more of an accompaniment to meat or fish.

We perused a book I have – The Great Salsa Book. It’s available on Amazon. The recipe we found was tomatillos and avocados. It was a very simple salsa with just those main ingredients, fired up a little with chili peppers and cilantro and a generous addition of lime juice for tanginess. I’ve supplied the recipe below.LosCompaneros

I mixed up a batch over the weekend before the contest and brought it in to the office on Monday morning for the team to sample. Everyone agreed that it was unique and tasty, but we also agreed that it needed more heat. (I purposely toned the sample batch down because my wife doesn’t like it too spicy.)

Besides our strategy in recipe selection, we also wanted to have a distinctive look. So we had custom aprons made. For our team name, we picked “Los Companeros de Salsa.” That roughly translates as the Comrades of Salsa. And for our slogan, we went with ‘Toma Salsa.’ (As we brainstormed a slogan, one of the team suggested “Got Salsa,” a play on the ubiquitous ‘Got Milk’ advertising campaign in the dairy industry. The Spanish version of ‘Got Milk’ is ‘Toma Leche.’ Check the web site. It’s cool. Hence – Toma Salsa.) I thought the aprons were unique and attention-getting.

So our third strategy for winning was to influence the judges. In this case, our co-workers were invited to sample different teams’ salsa and ‘vote’ on the best. My intern was supposed to be the ringer on this strategy. She invited all the other summer interns (and there were lots of them) to come down to the contest. Since we were the only team that included an intern, I thought we were sure to get the most votes.

When you add it all up – unique recipe, stylish aprons, and the intern connection – I thought we’d win for sure. But darn it all anyway, we didn’t.

Team No. 2 – The Spicy Accountants – won. Here’s what I think happened. As people came into the auditorium to taste the different recipes, they tended to stay in line and taste them in order, from Team 1 to Team 11. We were Team 9. So by the time most people got to us, their taste buds were ruined, and they couldn’t appreciate the flavors of our creation.

Oh, well. No matter. We had a lot of fun doing it. And Los Companeros have a really cool apron for our kitchens.

I invited the winning team to post their recipe on Krik’s Picks. They’re thinking about it. They said they’re trying to find a way to turn it into a United Way Fundraiser, a sentiment that I applaud. I told them there would be no better way to promote it than by posting their recipe on Krik’s Picks. We’ll see.

Recipe: Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa

1 lb. tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and coarsely choppedSalsaIngred
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, coarsely chopped
1 serrano chili, with seeds
3/4 c. cilantro leaves
2 tbsp. lime juice
1 tsp. salt

Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree.

Preparation tips from Los Companeros de Salsa:
  • We got better results from using a food processor rather than a blender. It tended to be thicker.
  • We used half cilantro and half parsley. Some people don’t like the harshness of cilantro.
  • Taste your chili pepper. We thought ours wasn’t as spicy as we wanted, so we added more than called for by the recipe.
  • I think one of the keys to making any salsa is to allow time for it to sit, so the flavors can blend, before eating.
  • Besides serving on tortilla chips, it also would be good on chicken or grilled fish.

04 August 2010

Breakfast bakery: Local independent vs. Local supermarket

One of my co-workers celebrated his birthday today (63). To celebrate, he brought in some bakery items from Hi-Quality Bakery in Cannon Falls. It’s a nice local independent bakery.

Unbeknownst to Dave, someone else in the department also brought bakery in honor of his birthday. Hers came from Byerly’s, a nice local supermarket.

With the unexpected bounty of bakery goods, we joked that one of the boxes was for President Obama who also celebrated his birthday today. Sadly, he spent the day in Chicago and didn’t stop by to claim his donut.DaveBD[1]

So we took an informal poll – which is better? Local independent bakery or local supermarket bakery?

Here are a few of the votes:

“I vote the (Hi-Quality) bakery. Donuts get hard really quickly, but the bakery donuts were still very soft and fresh. Yum!”

“I tried to pick similar donuts and the Hi-Quality Bakery was too greasy and sugary. Byerly's was a
smoother texture (popover egg consistency) and frosting was creamy. My vote is for Byerly's.”

“Hi-Quality - A+ on appearance for Byerly's, but overall better taste for HQ!”

“The almond pastry I ate from Byerly's was heavenly - I vote Bylery's!”

Well, I also had the almond pastry from Byerly’s. It was good, but too dry. Dave’s solution was to put butter on. I agree. Butter would make it better. But the ‘caramelized croissant’ from Hi-Quality was to die for. Later in the day, I had a sugar donut from Byerly’s. It was very good.

I’ll give the last word to Dave. He favors Hi-Quality. (Duh. That’s what he brought.) He believes HQ gets the edge on freshness. As a small independent, everything is baked fresh overnight so when you arrive in the morning, it’s as fresh as you can get.