Monday, October 27, 2008

Coffee Beans

In preparation for my rating of coffeehouses in the cities I thought I would do a series of coffee related articles.

My first is to explain the coffee bean in a totally non-Wikipedia way. Essentially I want to cut through the etymology, types, processing and anything that is boring and detracts from what we are all really, honestly concerned with...the taste.

Its true, coffee beans start more as a berry than a bean and that there is a large amount of polluted water created by their processing, but what few people realize is that a dark roast typically has less caffeine and more sugar. We usually get a dark roast for a very robust flavor, but in fact it has a smoother flavor and is less acidic...the true reason we like it.

How to keep that flavor in:
Air-tight storage and a cool temperature. Keep them in the fridge if you have the space. I've got a cool little vacuum sealer that I got from Target a few years ago that comes with a series of containers. For my uber-special coffee I will vacuum seal it in a tupperware-ish container. Oh, what is that supper great coffee you ask?? Well it is the basis for all of my comparisons in the upcoming "Twelve Best Coffeehouses in the Twin Cities" article...its a medium-dark roast of beans from Papua New Guinea available exclusively from the home roaster "Spunky Monkey Coffee." Which if you want even more great coffee tips or to order you should check out his site. Also, he has got the coolest...or I mean warmest Spunky Monkey cups...doesn't it take you back to your childhood? I remember having a Spunky Monkey rag doll when I was little...twenty years later I found out that I didn't create that name... foiled again!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Coffee Houses

So I've begun a series of reviews. It all started with the ice cream parlor review. I get this itch to go and find something else I love...track down a bunch of places and then share it with all of you, my friends. However, I thought this time round I would do something unique. If you know of a particularly good (non-chain) coffee house that I should check out let me know. I'll take your suggestions and then you can find out where they rank in comparison to other top coffee houses. Essentially I'll do the testing for you. So if you think your favorite place is great, just try these...get the idea? In as much as you would like to know how your coffee house stacks up with others across the Twin Cities leave a comment and I'll include it.
Then, after a bit of research time I'll give you the "Top Twelve Coffee Houses for the Winter Blues" list.


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Banana Bread

Back in the 1960's there was a home cooking revival that along with the well known Pillsbury cookbook gave banana bread its stardom and ever after popularity. I dare say there are hundreds of variations on this beloved bread which include nuts, raisins, cranberries and even peppermint. The unknown scandal of banana bread though is that it really is not a bread or at least it should not be. In reality, banana bread should be a muffin! Like many other quick breads, banana bread has succumb to being over processed which really results in more of a banana cake than a bread. I've found the following recipe to be outstanding. It is the mainstay in our household and will most likely continue to be so for quite some time. The recipe consists of three bowls for mixing: two "wet bowls" and one "dry bowl." In the first "wet bowl" mix together three or four ripe banana's (really, as long as no furry stuff is growing off them they will be perfect) with one cup of sugar. I use a potato masher and find it works very well for this. Turn it into mush as if you're least favorite person was in that bowl. In the second "wet bowl" mix together two large eggs, one stick of melted and cooled butter and a teaspoon of almond extract. This adds a nutty flavor to the bread and makes the kitchen smell delicious! In the meantime, set your oven rack to one position below the very top rails. Preheat to 350. Prepare a pan with butter and parchment paper. Then, in a third and much larger bowl, sift two cups of all purpose flour together with a teaspoon of baking soda and a teaspoon of fine salt. Make a depression in the center and set aside. Combine the two wet bowls until well mixed. Then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Now be careful at this step. You want to mix the ingredients gently until you see the last of the white flour disappear. No more. This is why banana bread should really be a muffin not a bread. You want lumps. They will add to the structure of the bread and ultimately give you a scrumptious bread, not a cake. If you want fold in extras at this time like pecans, walnuts, craisins, etc. Pour the batter into your bread pan and place in the oven for 40 minutes. After that time, check to see that your bread has achieved a perfect caramel brown on top and place a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. Allow it to bake for another 10-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. When the bread is baked, take it out and let the pan cool on a rack for 15 minutes. If you have used a sling of parchment paper, pull the bread out of the pan and let it further cool to room temperature. If you rap the bread tightly in saran wrap it will keep for about 5 days. Trust me, it won't last that long anyway!!

Ice Cream Parlors

It all started for the wife and I when we read an article in Mpls St.Paul Magazine, Best of Summer: 12 Yummy Ice Cream Shops. That was like a challenge for us, three months, twelve weekends, it just seemed right. So we set off on our trek for great ice cream and wound up discovering not only good and bad creameries, but new neighborhoods. Overall, it was as fun searching for these places as it was trying the ice cream... well almost! The only problem... summer ran out on us. Hopefully we will continue our search for the best of the best throughout the remaining warm days of the season, but I wanted to get this out to you in case you were so inclined to try a few late-minute culinary delights. Now, I've tried to order my review for you in terms for best to worst. Keep in mind that the worst may still be better than you local Cold Stone Creamery, it just isn't as good as the best. Here we go:
  1. Grand Ole Creamery: This was the best of the best. I have yet to go there when there wasn't a line snaking out the little red door. This has unique, but tasty flavors as well as the old standbys. The ice cream is rich and has the perfect texture. Get the waffle cone which was just recently baked. They have the best of the best.
  2. Crema Cafe: With a Tuscan looking building and (at least when I was there) a very snappy and friendly server, this place comes up as a very close second. In fact, I think the only reason its second is because I have gone to Grand Ole Creamery more often and it has a special place in my... tummy! Anyway try the signature flavor Crema. It is ice cream churned with Arabica coffee beans. Its like eating a creamy espresso! The wife had a pluot sorbet that was one of the most refreshing things I've ever had.
  3. Pumphouse Creamery: Again, we are talking about a few degrees of separation between 1 & 2 here, but try this place out! It is in a little niche of shops off of Chicago Ave in Minneapolis. What I love about this place is they incorporate local ingredients in their ice cream. I had a thin-mint and homemade brownies ice cream, while the wife had a blueberry, buttermilk cone.
  4. Sebastain Joe's Ice Cream Cafe: I've got to be honest, there is little difference between #1 and #4 in this review. The ice cream is delightful and reminds me of the homemade stuff I used to have back on the farm. Parking is a little sketchy around this place, but look for the chocolate dipped waffle cones to put your favorite ice cream in.
  5. Izzy's: You may very well have heard about Izzy's. It has been a twin cities trademark for sometime and gets a GOLD STAR from me for being highly dependent on solar energy. However, I have a gripe here with Mpls St.Paul Magazine. When they reviewed this place they commented on the Cherry Bomb, a delicacy that was featured in Bobby Flay's Throwdown with Izzy's. It was cherries jubilee ice cream inside a chocolate shell... who the hell wouldn't want that! Well I burst in the door and said, "ONE CHERRY BOMB PLEASE!" "Oh, we haven't had that for... what do you say?(turning to a co-worker)...yeah, like two years..." What the *%$&! You have a desert featured on national television and you discontinue it. "Well I'll take a single scoop of Guiness then... what do I want for my Izzy scoop? What's that?" "Oh a little scoop of ice cream on top... cool... I'll have Irish Whiskey please" Anyway, that's where I stand on that shop. Might go back, but I was horribly saddened by no Cherry Bomb.
  6. Edina Creamery: Has recently become a chain (disappointment), but still good ice cream. It has all the benefits of a 50's dinner (or so they claim because I can't judge from first hand experience).
  7. Luxury Sweets: Gelato... typically yum... not so here. This is the worst, and I would probably eat at Cold Stone before here again. Sad to say this about a Gelato place, but this falls far short of the delightful Italian Ice that Gelato should be. Inconsequentially, if you're looking for a really good Gelato, go to Door County Wisconsin. There you'll find Double Delights in Egg Harbor. Wonderful Gelato!!! The wife says its as good as the authentic Italian stuff... if she says so its true!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A breeze in the air

Oh ah. That's what I thought of as I woke up this morning. Currently I'm looking at a cooler than average 70 degrees. There is no humidity in the air and I can almost smell a bbq coming. Another thing I can smell...the apple pies gearing up to be made. Oh boy, am I really thinking of fall while its still a beautiful summer? Dear, oh dear.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cooking Blog

Ever notice that different types of blogs can by their very nature receive more or less responses. I began noticing this as I posted more recipes on my blog than book reviews. The wife has a wonderful blog on book reviews. She receives so many comments that she even uses an analysis tool (from google) to track her hits and what not. She also belongs to a gozzillion different book blogs and challenges.

We were recently at friend's house talking about this. Both of them have blogs too and making the same comments. The one has a cooking blog that is really neat, but doesn't get many comments. The other has more movie reviews, comic book reviews, video gaming stuff, etc and gets more comments.

So my question, being a psychology major, was why does one type of blog get more comments than another and I have drawn the following observations:
  1. A person is more likely to get more comments on their blog the more they leave comments on other blogs. This would make sense. A person that does this is not only putting their name (blog) out there more often, but is encouraging more response by a social interaction theory.
  2. The content of a blog can either be open or closed. What I mean by that is that the content can either lend itself to being commented on or not. So, a cooking blog is less likely to get comments than a book blog. Why? Book blogs generally do book challenges. Ergo, everybody read this book and make a comment on what you think. Its like an on-line book club. If it isn't one book, its one type of book (e.g., sci-fi, history, etc). Cooking blogs do not generally have cooking challenges though. I mean, how many Spanish Tapas Cooking Challenges have you seen out there. This may be uncharted territory though for cooking enthusiasts. How about this, leave a comment and let me know what you think about doing a cooking challenge and then sharing recipes afterwards.
  3. That leads me to my final observation. Blogs that pose a question or request a response generally get one. Exceptions exist ofcourse. If the blog is a slow traffic site, it may not get that many hits to begin with. One thing is unique about blogging though; it doesn't lend itself well to the trajedy of the commons. When you read a post, you automatically see how many people have commented. Therefore, there is not the temptation to leave without commenting, based soley on the thought that someone else will. Wouldn't it be great if social situations came with automatic feedback features? Perhaps more people would call 911 when they see an emergency situation occuring?

Happy thinking!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lucky's Secret Fried Chicken (Declassified)

Skill Level: who cares, cooking is an adventure!
Time:'ll get quicker.
Serves: depends on the company, but makes a good dinner for six

Here's a fried chicken recipe that will give Colonel Sanders a run for his... chicken! This took loads of modification and lots of treadmill - guilt running to perfect.

1 quart buttermilk, plus two cups (yes be authentic, will not taste as good with skim milk)
1 egg or two (depends on the size, but don't sweat it)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (pre-ground will do if you must)
2 tablespoons of hot sauce (use your favorite, I like a chipotle personally) and 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 whole chickens (3-4 lbs each) cut up into at least 8 pieces

In a large bowl, whisk together the 1 quart of buttermilk, 2 tablespoons of salt and hot sauce mixture along with the black pepper. Add the chicken pieces, turn to coat, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (4 hrs if you're in a pinch)

Next day: place the remaining 2 cups of buttermilk in a bowl. Make some buttermilk biscuits to go along with this. They will be mighty tasty and a good use of the remaining buttermilk. Add the egg and stir just till they are combined. In another bowl, put the flour mixture (recipe follows). Drain the chicken in a colander and pat it till its absolutely dry. Dredge the pieces a few at at time in the flour mixture and pat off the excess. Be sure to get the excess off, if you don't the breading will fall off instead. Dip them in the buttermilk and allow the excess to drain off. Dredge them again in the flour mixture and pat off the excess. Put the chicken on a pieces of parchment paper till ready to cook.

Using a large cast iron pan (I recommend a Lodge Cast Iron Fryer ), fill the pan until it is almost half full of Crisco shortening and one piece of bacon. Heat the pan over medium high (350) heat while you are coating the chicken. When ready, pull out the piece of bacon, if you haven't already. Just make sure it doesn't burn. Place about 4 pieces of chicken in the pan at a time and let them cook for 6-8 minutes, flip them over and cook another 6-10. The chicken should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F for medium done (I wouldn't recommend much cooler). Dark meat will take a little longer. Remove the chicken and let rest on a drying rack with lots of paper towels under it. You'll fry the last four the same way you fried the first four.

Flour mixture (here's the secret ;-))

3 cups of flour (sifted)
2 teaspoons garlic salt
2 teaspoons onion salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon course salt (Kosher)
1 teaspoon black pepper (fresh!)
1/2 teaspoon dried powdered rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried powdered thyme

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Grilled Potatoes

If there is every a type of vegetable that couldn't be messed up easily it the potato. With millions of variations, the potato has had a long history of not only making, but breaking a society. In fact, 2008 was declared by the United Nations to the International Year of the Potato. With that I thought it right to discover the flexibility of the potato.

When grilling a potato, I will parboil them. To parboil means to boil the item a little before grilling, essentially partially cooking it and then finishing it on the grill. Another food you would do this with is lobster. Anyway, parboil as many potatoes as you want to serve up. There is no science to this. Cut up your potatoes into as big or small a pieces as you want, just don't go to small our you will have mashed potatoes whether you want it or not.

Half way through boiling, fire up the grill to high heat. Use either coals or a gas grill. If you're using coals, start them in a chimney before you cut up the potatoes. With the grill heating and the potatoes boiling, melt 1-2 tablespoons butter in a microwaveable dish. Put a pinch of sea salt in a large bowl (big enough to toss your potatoes in). Accompany that with a equal portions of dried thyme, parsley and black pepper. Finally, if you want a little zing to you potatoes, through in a couple drops of Tabasco sauce. Mix this up with the butter.

When your potatoes are tender, drain them and put them back on the stove for a moment. This will take the excess water out of the potatoes. This is a little known secret that works well for this recipe as well as mashed potatoes. Who wants to dilute their seasoning with water, huh? So get rid of it completely. When the water has pretty much crackled out of it (listen carefully), put the potatoes in the bowl. Mix them well with the butter seasoning.

Place a grill pan on your grill. If you don't have one, they are a pan with holes in them and are wonderful for these kinds of applications. As opposed to foil bagging your food, these pans allow the flavor of the charcoal to come through. Now your potatoes are essentially cooked, what you do from here on is icing on the cake. Cook them on the grill until you have sufficient char marks to your liking. Here is another important part. When you take them off the grill, put them back in your seasoning/butter bowl and cover them will tin foil until you are ready to serve. At meal time, just plate them up. Your potatoes will be smoky and moist. If you prefer them crunchy, just skip the tin foil. Here is the best part, this recipe is so flexible. Try Cajun spices, or lemon pepper.

Any way you go, enjoy the grilled potatoes.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The capacity for happiness is equal only to the capacity for sorrow

One snowy Christmas, a young orphan boy received a jack-in-the-box. Never before having see a toy the boy asked what he was to do with the box. His headmaster told him he was to wind the crank, but would tell him know more for he wanted to keep the surprise alive. The boy looked quizzically at the box and set it aside while his headmaster returned to his work. You see, the boy had never been given much of anything but a hard time in life and he was slow to trust and even slower to jump into things he had not already done. So the boy could simply not understand what the point was to cranking the box. Did it supply food? He remembered seeing a coffee grinder similar to this that belonged to a doctor he visited. No, it was nothing useful he determined. If it was, his headmaster would have told him and he could certainly not find anywhere to put the coffee beans anyway. It continued to perplex him why anyone would want a box that you simply cranked on. Was this someone's idea of a cruel joke? Then suddenly a younger boy came up to him, wide-eyed and utterly fixated on the box. He had never seen anything like this before. The small boy asked what it was and the older responded that it was a box you cranked. The small friend asked if he might have a better look at it and grabbed it delightedly when the other nodded his head. He began feverishly spinning the crank. Within moments the top flew back and the small joker popped up on his wiggly spring, an endless grin painted on his face. The young lad was completely delighted and rolled on the floor in laughter. After a good go at it the small boy returned the box to his older friend and complimented him on the splendor of the toy. Yet the boy just stood there, his mouth agape, holding onto what he once thought a useless box. He dropped it to the floor and began crying. His smaller companion stared at him for a moment, shrugged his shoulders and went about pretending to be a jack-in-the-box for the rest of the day. All the while, the other boy just sat against a wall, wondering at the injustice of it all. If only the headmaster had told me he said to himself. All would have been well and I would have enjoyed the toy so much.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Oceanaire Seafood Room

Looking for a premier seafood experience in the Twin Cities? Look no further than the Oceanaire Seafood Room. Located in downtown Minneapolis, beneath the Hyatt hotel, the Oceanaire offers not just excellent quality seafood but an entire dinning experience meant to satisfy the Sea Captain in us all. The service is stupendous. My wife and I had the opportunity to celebrate our anniversary there and I cannot even tell you the number of people that wished us a Happy Anniversary! I simply mentioned this fact when I made reservations and we were treated to a special dessert, custom anniversary menus and the like. Now, I haven't had that service elsewhere in a long time. Aside from the rich wood interior that makes you feel like your sitting in the hull of some schooner, the food is fresh,fresh,fresh! Now, on to dinner: We opened the night with two glasses of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label from France. This particular drink is dominated by Pinot Noir, but is balanced well with a Chardonnay all combined to make a fantastic Champagne. Now, its not the Le Grande Dame, which is the premier bottle of the Veuve collection, but it was still fantastic. For an appetizer, we picked from the various selections of the oyster bar. Heres what we got:
  1. Kumamoto - Oregon
  2. Barron Point - Washington
  3. Eld Inlet - Washington
  4. Jorstad - Washington
Now, you will notice that they are all from the west coast. My wife and I prefer west coast oysters to east coast. That's only a preference though, both types are excellent. The difference is this: west coast oysters are smaller and have a delicate melon undertone to their flavor, whereas east coast oysters are bigger and saltier tasting. The trick to get the best flavor out of oysters - eat them on the half shell with no seasoning or sauce. Just pick up the shell and toss 'em back. If you want to expereince them as they are intended don't order Oysters Rockefeller or dip them in any of the sauces provided... it will just ruin the flavor. The entrees: I had the South African rock lobster tail. I've had my fair share of lobster in Maine, but I hadn't tried a rock lobster. This was the same kind that one would find off the coast of Florida. Essentially a little firmer than a Maine lobster, it lacked nothing in flavor. Broiled with some herbal butter it was rich but not overpowering... all that lobster should be. My beautiful bride had the Yellowfin Ahi Tuna. This could be prepaire two ways and she elected for it to be lightly pan seared and served raw - sushi style with some wasabi in the side. Two words describe it Fin Tastic! LOL! One of the best parts of the meal brought me back to my childhood in a new way. We ordered a house favorite of Summer Squash Fries. They were prepared like shoe string onion rings: cut into thin strips, battered and deep fried. They were served up with a roasted red pepper mayo. What a delight! They reminded me of the onion rings I used to get at the same steak house mentioned in my last post. The only difference was that these were more delicate due to the soft texture of the summer squash. However, that was only enhanced by the crunch of the batter. They were fantastic. Dessert was on the hosue. Another nice little treat for our anniversary. It's called baked Alaskan, although why I'm not sure. It was a mound of cherry icecream, wrapped in meringue, all stacked on top of a brownie sitting in a creme anglaise. The presentation was magnificent. The waiter brought this out with a saucer of Grand Marnier which he lit a fire and poured over the top. The result, a beautiful blue flame in the dimmer light of the evening and a toasted meringue that looked like a beehive made out of roasted marshmallow! DE-lightful! :-) Disclaimer: I highly recommend this restaurant, yet a dinner like the one described above will run well over $200.00. To some that's not much, to others its enough to make the Oceanaire an annual trip only - like on your anniversary if applicable!
Link: Oceanaire Seafood Room Minneapolis

Saturday, August 2, 2008

When good meat goes bad.

Have you ever found that one steak house that just pulls you in like cattle to a slaughterhouse? Ok, bad pun and I apologize, but I could not resist. Growing up in southern Wisconsin I was blessed to have a Swiss style, Irish pub, serving a wonderfully done English prime rib roast (no kidding). I remember my family would go there almost every weekend growing up just to take advantage of the Saturday night special. It was a rib roast encrusted with rosemary, garlic and various other fresh herbs and spices, served up with roushtie potatoes (later post perhaps). Then one day we went and it wasn't the same. What happened? New management was certainly behind it. Yet it was the same recipe, the same chefs and the same cut of meat. The problem was in the supplier. For years the restaurant had used a local butcher whom they had a good relationship with. The problem was that the local butcher asked a little more than "fair market value" of his cuts. Well in the Walmart economic model, the restaurant began getting its meat from a bulk restaurant supplier. I've only gone back a hand full of times, each time praying things have changed.

MEAT 101
So lets start with a basic lesson in picking the best cut of meat. First though, my credentials. I grew up on a dairy farm where it was quite the norm to butcher your own meat. Lets not get into the details, but suffice it to say I have a first hand knowledge in literally raising quality meat. We rarely ate anything that wasn't a prime cut. Prime cut? Yes, that's the first part of the lesson. What makes a prime rib prime? Well it has a good deal to do with the marbling in the meat. No, not the mineral, the fat. That's right, the fat. Marbling is the fat that has worked its way into and around the meat. The more and more even disbursement of marbling, the higher the quality of meat. Now this does not mean grissle. It means fat. HUGE difference! Grissel is what you gnaw at in lower qualities of meat. Marbling is what makes a prime rib oh-so-delicious. Its the kind of fat that melts away and bastes the meat as it cooks.

Well if there is prime quality meat, what is all the rest? A good way to keep the quality of meat in line is to remember that you "needs to PiCS your meat" (as Popie might say). PiCS standing for Prime, Choice, and Select: the various cuts of meat from highest to lowest grade. Essentially prime is from well raised cattle, choice from decently raised cattle and select from the lesser cows (usually an injured cow sold to slaughter). Now before you vomit a little in your mouth from that last selection of meat, allow me to put it into context. The meat is fine, the cow itself just wasn't in prime condition. So, you get meat, but a lack of effort or bad luck as it may be, forced the owner to cash the cow in earlier.

What to use them for. Prime, don't worry: you would have to try to mess this cut of meat up. BBQ it, grill it, roast it, broil it; whatever you do you will enjoy it! Choice, a little less forgiving, but good for steaks, especially if you marinade. Its also great because its a lot easier on the check-card (I almost said checkbook, but come-on its the 21st century right?). Anyway, this is a great cut if you want your guest to feel like Kings and Queens at your next dinner party. I mean, usually you just serve hamburger and hot dogs (unless you are from Wisconsin, then brats are a given). With choice you can serve everyone steaks for cheap, without sacrificing flavor. Select... well can anyone say stew meat. It doesn't even make a good hamburger (which is why I prescribe to grinding your own meat, but that's another post). You can use select as a filler if you want. I actually make a pretty good Texas chilly using select cuts. Anyway, even when good meat goes bad you can save it somehow. Just remember, there is a tool for every job, so too there is a meat for every need.

Happy grilling.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


My wife and I recently returned from a vacation to Colorado. A stop on our journeys was the Anasazi site of Mesa Verde. The Anasazi (Navajo for "Ancient Ones") were a tribal population very similar to the Maya and other sophisticated pre-American societies. The only caveat is that they completely vanished around the mid 1100s.
Its interesting to wander about the ruins of the Anasazi cave dwellings and cities, climbing down into restored Kevas (akin to a temple in modern day understanding) and trying to understand how a society slips away. In Jared Diamond's book Collapse, he does that on a global scale; trying to understand what happened to the societies that just went away.
Its hard for us to imagine in this day and age that a society can simply vanish. Although, remember that the State of Israel was created in 1948, which is only 70 years ago. Already they have nuclear war heads and are major players in the global theater. If a society can be formed that quickly can it not fall all the quicker?
Let's pull away from that for a moment and consider this: how strong or fragile is any society? We all have national pride to some extent, regardless of where we come from. I mean, who wants to see their own country fall (unless you have something very serious to gain from it)? The answer is that we have a certain psychological relationship to the security of ourselves and the place in which we live. Its the same reason people will spend thousands to install a security system in their homes; the same reason we purchase car insurance, life insurance, health insurance, pet insurance. We want security. The greater question is can we have security in isolation? Societies in the past have proven that the answer to that question is a double edged sword. Its a catch-22 at times.
It is often at election times that we become very invested in questions that we can at other times shrug off. In this election time, how can we apply the lessons of forgotten societies to our current situation? What conclusions do we draw about our candidates? Can we afford to look beyond our borders? Can we afford not to?
Jared Diamond does a phenomenal job of exploring the history of lost societies. Although the reading can become a bit dry at times, you will leave the book all the more knowledgeable about the self preservation and destruction of a people group. My recommendation is to skim through some of the detail that Diamond gives for each society and read just enough to understand his premise. Although, you may go back in the book to discover, for example, how the Easter Island inhabitants erected the enormous stone statues that line the island (especially if you want to consider alien creatures meddling with the human population).

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Delving into the world of Japanese cuisine can be intimidating. To begin you have sushi which refers basically to some type of raw food. However, thanks to commercial distribution many think that sushi comes in rolls. This is not necessarily the case. Sushi is really just some type of food placed over rice. There are many variations on sushi though. The sushi rolls (made by wrapping sushi in Nori, a seaweed wrapper) that we are more familiar with are called Maki and Tamaki. Maki are basically just Tamaki rolls, cut up into smaller servings.

Maki come in an almost endless variety (e.g., California rolls, Spider rolls, etc.) depending on your location. Also, each Japanese eatery has its own various styles and selections.

Now, to make life easier and less intimidating: All the types of rolls you could get are widely discussed on websites such as Wikipedia. Yet, without having to do research before you go out for an enjoyable dinner... I have found most Japanese eateries in the Twin Cities have very helpful staff. Even so, here are some helpful etiquette tips if you go our for sushi.

  1. Sushi may be eaten either with your hands or with chopsticks. There some good news for the few of us that are not coordinated! Nigiri (the most common sushi) is typically eaten with your hands because chopsticks would crumble the rice it is wrapped in. If you get a roll (maki) and you want to impress your friends with your skills, use chopsticks.
  2. The soy sauce is meant to flavor the fish, not the rice. Also, mixing wasabi (the spicy green stuff) with soy sauce is typically a no-no. In fine restaurants, every morsel of sushi should have a dab of wasabi in it already. The mixing of wasabi and soy sauce is really just a matter of taste though. If you like it, guess what... DO IT! You are paying for it, get what you want. If you really want to sound sophisticated call the mix of wasabi and soy sauce by its name, Wasabi-joyo.
  3. Now, if you have seen the movie The Last Samurai, you will recall the scene where Tom Cruise's character called out "SAKI, SAKI!" as he was laying captured in the enemy samurai's house, well don't you do that the next time you dine on sushi. The rice flavor of Saki (a type of Japanese liquor) is not considered a natural pairing of sushi. In fact, neither is wine (for the most part). The traditional pairing is beer - did the Japanese know the Irish?
Here's to the restaurants in the area. My wife and I have tried two restaurants in the Woodbury area lately. The first, Sushi Tango, is a satellite of the uptown Minneapolis restaurant. The second we visited was Akita - sushi and hibachi. Overall impression: Sushi Tango wins out by a landslide.

Both of the restaurants offered sushi, sashimi, maki, temaki, tempura, various soups and limited deserts (green tea ice cream). Both also had a full bar, but Akita also offered a hibachi style of dining (what Benihana's does). The short story was that Sushi Tango had fresher tasting ingredients and a more enjoyable atmosphere. I had a spider roll (a maki roll with deep fried soft shell crab) at both locations for a comparison, as well as spicy tuna. The spider rolls at Sushi Tango were crisper and sweeter and the spicy tuna had a fuller taste. The sushi at Akita had a "rubbery" texture. The presentation at each restaurant was compatible. One feature that I did like about Akita is that they had a "buffet" option, where you ordered anything off the menu and paid a base price. This way you could experience a lot of different options, for less "green". However, Akita's layout reminded me of a combination between Olive Garden and Hollister. Now, I didn't do the Hibachi at Akita, but just looking over at it, I thought Benihana was better. In the long run, I will be going back for seconds at Sushi Tango, but not Akita.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Penzey's Spices

I recently had the good fortune to find myself in a Penzey's Spice store. My first impression was the delightful smell that met my nose when I walked in. My second was surprise the the entire section dedicated to Saffron.

Really if you are looking for a good collection of spices, dried herbs, and various mixes I say that Penzey's is the place to be. Here are some things that you might want to know before you enter your local Penzey's though:
  1. Everything is alphabetical, even the mixes. You will need to browse the store to find all that is available.
  2. Try out the glass "smell" jars. Each spice, herb or mixture is bottled up in a glass jar (at least the one I found had this). You can pop the top off that jar and get a hint at what you're buying. Good news - no more guessing at what you're getting.
  3. Everything is very informative. They actually described the difference between types of peppercorns - black peppercorns that is. I didn't know there was a difference! I guess they are like a fine wine though, location and harvesting are critical to the taste of the pepper. There goes my pepper vine in the back yard!
  4. Pick up the store recipes. Different mixes have recipes that Penzey's chefs (I'm assuming) have put together. I'm looking forward particularly to the taco mix and taco salad recipe we got.
  5. They are not about the salt. Although Penzey's has started to move into the gourmet salt market, they emphasis saltless mixes. It seems like their take on it is that food can taste good without a sodium base. I tend to agree and here is a story about that...
I picked up the Chicago steak seasoning and tried it on a ribeye. Apart from letting the meat overcook on the grill (still getting back into the swing of things), the taste was wonderful. I bought the mix based on its smoky smell (reminded me of Swiss Landjaegers). I took a very simple approach to the meat so I could really tell the taste of the mix. Here is what I did:
  1. Preheat a grill to high.
  2. In the meantime apply 1-2tsp. of mix per lb of meat. Spread mix on both sides of meat and rub in. Cover and set aside to come to room temperature (or as close as possible).
  3. Oil your grill - so important, but often missed!
  4. Place the meat on the grill over the fire (direct grilling).
  5. Cook till done (I use, or should have used :), the poke test. This takes some time, but eventually you can feel the difference between rare, medium rare, medium and well done - more on this later).
This made a delicious steak. The only thing better would be to season it a little ahead of time. This would taste great on lamb or chicken too. So for any dry rub marinated piece of meat, I whole-heartedly recommend Chicago Steak Seasoning by Penzey's Spices.

Menu Options
  1. Ribeyes with Chicago Steak Seasoning (steaks about 1" thick)
  2. Sweet Potato Fries
  3. Roasted Corn on the Cob with Herb Butter
  4. Paired with Marechal Foch from WineHaven.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Tullamore Dew

Tullamore Dew 12 year is a fine Irish sipping whiskey. No, the origins are not the same as the caffeinated drink Mountain Dew whose name comes from the Tennessee mountain moonshine. This sophisticated drink hails rather from the small town of Tullamore in the Offaly County, smack dab in the heart of Ireland.

It's the nose sets Tullamore Dew apart from most American whiskeys and in a distinct class of its own among Irish whiskeys too. In the nose and on the tongue you will notice a rich caramel, just like the delicious treats that grandma used to make. That and a little touch of lemon. Barley grain, which is use to produce whiskey is dried over coal fires in Ireland, as opposed to the peat fires in Scotland. This keeps the flavor pure and clean.

Following the caramel taste that fills your mouth and nose you get a slightly pungent burn that a livens the taste buds. It's not quite to the "kick your butt" stage, but dangerous none the less. It has an addicting, buttery body, with a sweet range of spices and a smoky wooden undertone that doesn't shut your drinking down. The burn starts on the top of your tongue, lingers there and then fades to the deep back of your throat. Throughout you'll find a nuttiness coming through the drink.

Now, down to dinner. If you're going to pair this it will finish off any barbecue quite nicely. However, if I may, let me recommend keeping this drink with something off the emerald shores. Try a grilled leg of lamb with this. Maybe some pears and roasted potatoes on the side. Don't let the lack of a lavish dinner stop you from enjoying this drink though. Its a stand alone, after dinner, sit down with a nice figurado cigar.

*Snob Alert* This may be a bit mellow for a loyal Jack Daniels fan, but for anyone that wants one hell of a good drink that finishes smoother than Jameson and is more robust than Bushmills, try Tullamore Dew.

Now, the true story of how Tullamore Dew was named. What is remembered of the song of olden days is thus:

Down the hills and to the streams
The piper played for sweet dreams
Yet in the valley green
Among the yellow flowers fair
Comes the amber water beams

As it was the land of emerald isles was still new and born to the minstrels of Taglash, the seventh star set in the sky. It was the days before the first rain and the minstrels delighted themselves by playing and frolicking in the hills and valleys. Taglash loved so much the songs that radiated to his place in the sky that he filled his days with it. That was until the Meckrel came to what is known now as Ireland. The meckrel was a beast of the earth and brought with him a consuming fire that was never satisfied. It devoured the grasses of the land and left barren the soils. The minstrels of Taglash faltered in their song and gave way to wailing, for the hills were special to them and they dried up in spirit as the fields did in the fire. Taglash could not bear to have the music halted, for in that time the delight of the tune carried the heavens. So he brought down the clouds upon the emerald isles one morning and blessed them. They covered the fire and consumed it in turn. The waters were so pure that nothing could resist their movement. It was then that the Meckrel came up from the earth to see what had laid waste to his anger. He bent low and took drink from a stream and drew deep of its waters. He soon flooded his belly with it and grew merry as he had never before. Soon he brought out a lute and played a skipping melody. The minstrels came and joined him in harmony. For many years Taglash would decend the dew upon the hills for the Meckrel to drink and the joy continued. The Meckrel and the minstrels honored Taglash by playing upon the highest hill in all the isles to lift the sound up best to him. To this day, the dew that comes from the big hill, or Tulach Mhór in the Gaelic (Tullamore), is revered as a drink which brings lightness to a dark soul.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


There are all kinds of foodie blogs out there. Here's what I would like to do in addition to just sharing recipes:
  1. I'll give my review of local eateries
  2. I'll try to share some of the history of the dishes I make, along with what makes them work
  3. I'll comment on any of the latest drinks or cigars I've had - let you know if they are relaxing or not
  4. I'll even throw in some romance ideas as well as my picks for fashionable attire to work or out on the town
Every so often I'll put something in there about some good music I've heard recently. Maybe a short story or two. I basically don't want you to get bored when coming to this blog - either that or I don't figure I'll have enough info on one topic to keep it going :)

I hope you will enjoy the posts at much as I enjoy making them.

Good times!