All posts by Christopher Carlberg

About Christopher Carlberg

2012 blogger newbie here. For over a year now, I have been contemplating starting my very own blog but hesitated. I struggled with the same question all aspiring, first-time bloggers ask themselves: do I have something interesting worth sharing? Will anyone want to read what I have to say? While those and various other questions remain to be answered, one will never discover the answers unless they give it the old college try.

Mayonnaise: Not Just from a Jar Anymore

As crazy unhealthy as it is, mayonnaise may be my favorite condiment. Not ketchup. Not mustard. Not Sriracha. Not BBQ. Not even soy sauce. Mayo. It just adds an extra layer of velvety richness to so many things – sandwiches, burgers, salad dressings, and even french fries. Just writing about it makes me want an order of hot, crispy fries with some flavored mayo to dip them in. Yum.

When Bryce and I had some friends over for burger night recently, I wanted to offer mayonnaise alongside the requisite ketchup and mustard. I opened the refrigerator and instantly became bored with the options staring at me from the shelves of the door. Miracle Whip is all right in a pinch, but let’s face the facts – it is NOT mayo. Save the Miracle Whip for tuna pasta salad. And the brand name real mayos? Blech. Because everything else was already prepared or prepackaged for the evening’s meal – down to the pattied burgers – I suddenly felt the urge to whip something up from scratch. I did’t know if I could live with myself if we hosted a dinner party, even such a low-key one, without some sort of homemade element. The lackluster inventory of available mayos combined with my desire to create something culinarily and led me to google recipes for made-from-scratch mayonnaise.

The top-rated return from my query was a recipe from Food Network’s Alton Brown. I clicked the link, read the recipe, and thought it seemed simple enough to execute, provided I had all of the ingredients – an egg yolk, fine salt, ground mustard, sugar, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, white wine vinegar, and oil. A quick perusal of the pantry and uninspiring fridge confirmed that I could, in fact, try my hand at Mr. Brown’s mayo recipe. After collecting the required ingredients, I set to work at creating mayo-ey goodness from scratch following the directions carefully. Although I have become more comfortable with egg-based sauces and custards over the past year (see my multiple ice cream recipes), they still cause a little hesitation, and it was my first attempt at making mayo – I didn’t want to screw things up. I need not have worried. Alton Brown’s recipe proved simple and straightforward. In roughly five minutes from start to finish, I had produced just over a cup of freshly made mayonnaise. I will definitely be making mayo again, and I recommend you give it a try as well. I may never buy a jar of mayonnaise again.

What made the homemade condiment even better? I split the batch into three smaller portions and flavored each one differently. In one, I sprinkled chili powder, cayenne pepper, and smoked paprika to transform the basic mayo into a spicy spread. I did not measure the amount of seasonings I added, I just stirred them in, tasted the mixture, and added more until I was happy with the taste. To the second portion, I mixed in a little kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper. To borrow a phrase from the venerable Ina Garten, how bad could that be? For the third and final offering, I roasted a few cloves of garlic in an aluminum foil satchel drizzled with olive oil and a dash of kosher salt before mixing them with the mayo. I also pushed one clove of fresh garlic through a press and stirred that in with the roasted garlic for a delicious, garlicky mayo (picture below). All three sauces provided that extra something I was looking for to add a special touch to the evening. Winner, winner, burger-night dinner!

A couple notes on the recipe itself. Alton Brown calls for safflower or corn oil, but I used what I had on hand – soybean oil. The next time I hit up the grocery store, I think I’ll pick up some safflower or corn oil to try that because the soybean oil left that distinct vegetable oil flavor. Don’t get me wrong, the flavor isn’t bad – especially when masked by the addition of other seasonings and flavors – it’s just noticeable. The other thing of note is whisking – what a workout! Perhaps I should have done some stretching before hand. I’m sure you could use an electric mixer, but all said and done, I enjoyed the process of whisking together the emulsified concoction by hand.

A dish of homemade garlic mayo.

CJC

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Easy like a Saturday Morning

There are few weekly meals better than lazy, weekend breakfasts, enjoyed after you can sleep in a little (or a lot) and spend the morning lolligagging before facing the freedom of the day ahead. Most typical days I stick to my trusty bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios or Cocoa Pebbles, a cup of coffee, and a tangerine. I am truly a creature of habit. But on those rare Saturday and Sunday mornings when time is not particularly of an essence, I revel in the opportunity to put together a more culinarily adventurous meal. Now, that does not mean I go crazy – I’m not making bagels from scratch or anything. After all, it is a lazy weekend morning. Instead, I tend to channel my inner-Sandra Lee and go all Semi-Homemade, just without the insane tablescapes that often make Sandra Lee’s dining room look like a craft store exploded (and not in a good way).

On a Saturday not too long ago, the universe conspired to give Bryce and I that perfect lazy morning. We had just moved the week before and definitely earned a laid back start to the weekend. So, for our first substantial breakfast in our new home, I found inspiration in a pint of blueberries chillin’ in the fridge. I contemplated making blueberry muffins or blueberry syrup before settling on fresh blueberry pancakes to go along with some crispy bacon and white cheddar scrambled eggs. For the pancakes, I started with the Bisquick recipe and then let my semi-homemade inclinations kick in. I mostly followed the instructions on the side of the box, which just combine Bisquick with milk and an egg. I changed a couple of things and added a few others – ta-da! Semi-homemade!

Truth be told, there is nothing wrong with traditional Bisquick pancakes and Golden Griddle Syrup. They remind me of my childhood, when we would have breakfast for dinner and my dad would make pancakes and bacon. He always turned those simple flapjacks into a special treat by transforming ordinary discs into snowmen or animal-shaped pancakes. On top of that, if we asked for a certain shape, he would attempt to make it. Dinner thus became more than just pancakes, it was an interactive and exciting adventure because my brother, sister, and I were involved in the creative cooking process. Experiences like those helped to inspire my own culinary evolution. Therefore, I aspire to recreate that sense of joy and human connection when I cook, much the way many cooks and chefs do (I assume).

Combining my semi-homemade skills with my proclivity to not leave well enough alone, I concocted a version of blueberry pancakes based on an alteration of the Bisquick recipe. I read somewhere that adding soda water to pancake batter helps make them fluffier, so I substituted 1/4 cup of soda water for some of the milk called for by the Bisquick recipe. I did not really notice a difference, but then again, I don’t make pancakes all that often and perhaps I did not use enough soda water. It definitely didn’t hurt the pancakes, so why not go with it? Then I added a little sugar and vanilla to amp up the flavor. Some melted butter lent a little more richness. And to compliment the blueberries, I stirred in the zest of one lemon, which provided an extra punch of freshness. Just to make sure things are coming together as planned, I usually taste-test my batter before taking the plunge and cooking it. Yes, raw eggs and all. I ain’t scared. The batter was ready. Once griddled and topped with a pad of butter and some warmed maple syrup, the resulting blueberry pancakes were not only scrumptious but easy like those wonderful Saturday mornings.

Blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, and crispy bacon.Easy Blueberry Pancakes
2 c. Bisquick (or similar baking mix)
2 tbsp. sugar
1 c. of milk
1/4 c. of soda water
4 tbsp. melted butter
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
1 to 1-1/2 c. fresh (or frozen blueberries)

In a mixing bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients except for the blueberries. When the batter is just combined, gently stir/fold in the blueberries so as not to break them open. Part of the fun and yumminess of blueberry pancakes is when the blueberries pop open in your mouth and their gloriously tangy juice mixes with the pancake and maple syrup to make a perfect bite of breakfast. To keep them from bursting open, you can also sprinkle the blueberries into the pancake batter once you’ve started cooking it.

Ladle a spoonful of the batter onto a non-stick griddle preheated over medium heat. (Sometimes I put a little vegetable shortening on the griddle to give the pancakes a crispy edges.) When bubbles form on the raw batter side after a few minutes, flip the pancakes over to reveal the golden brown goodness that defines a great pancake. Within a few minutes after the big flip, the pancakes will be done. Serve immediately. If you aren’t quite ready to eat them yet, place them in layers on a cookie sheet lined and separated with wax paper. Pop them in an oven set around 150-175 degrees to keep them warm. Too many pancakes? No problem! After you finish enjoying your meal and cannot eat another bite, cool the pancakes completely on a cooling rack. Once completely cooled, wrap each individual pancake in plastic wrap, toss into a freezer bag, and store in the freezer. When you have a hankering for a pancake, reheat the semi-homemade goodies in a toaster oven. How’s that for an instant breakfast? Whether fresh or reheated, top the pancakes with a little butter and your favorite syrup and enjoy!

Words of caution – you may have to play with the heat settings on your stove or electric griddle so the surface is not too hot – you don’t want pancakes that burn or cook too quickly on the outside but stay raw in the center. Gooey pancakes are good, runny ones are not.

CJC

The Perfect ‘Coffeeness’

Well, I mentioned on Facebook towards the beginning of the year that I had perfected Coffee Ice Cream and promised a recipe would follow shortly thereafter. Days flew by. Then weeks. And now, nearly four months have passed, and I am finally getting around to spilling the beans. May is still ‘soon’ after January, right? I guess that’s what I get as a grad student. Now that the first year is said and done, I am looking forward to blogging a little more consistently and hope to find a way to keep up more regular postings once grad school starts up again at the end of August.

Anyhoo, back to the topic at hand – Coffee Ice Cream and perfecting the recipe…

Late last fall, Bryce whipped up some delicious coconut bars that used only half of a can of sweetened condensed milk. Pondering what we should do with the remaining half of a can got me thinking about ice cream, as is typically the case. What better use for sweetened condensed milk than an ingredient for my next ice cream making adventure? I thought it could serve multiple purposes – as milk, as sweetener, and as a thickening agent. Why I chose coffee ice cream for the trial run I could not tell you, but I was suddenly struck with a craving and went with it.

My previous attempt at making coffee ice cream turned out to be rather uninspiring. I had not yet tried the whole egg yolk tempering thing and therefore had no need to heat up the milk and cream mixture prior to freezing. As a result, the instant coffee only partially dissolved into the liquid and the undissolved granules ended up speckling the ice cream. Just not in a good way. Heating up the sweetened condensed milk, cream, milk, and instant coffee did wonders for the mixture. I also thought to myself, “Hey, Food Network chefs are always adding instant coffee to chocolate recipes, commenting that the coffee helps to make the chocolate flavor more intense. I wonder if the same is true in reverse?” So, on top of the sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks, I added a teaspoon of cocoa powder to my new coffee ice cream mix. Even before freezing, I knew I had stumbled upon a great combination. I mean, I had to taste test throughout the cooking process, right? And the resulting ice cream proved even better than expected. It was thick, creamy, and smooth with the perfect balance of milkiness, sweetness, and coffeeness. That’s right, I just made up a new word. That’s how good the ice cream was, and the recipe will be my go-to whenever we’re craving a little coffee ice cream.

Bowl of coffee ice cream.
Coffee Ice Cream

2 c. heavy cream

1/2 c. sweetened condensed milk

1 c. whole milk

3 packets of instant decaffeinated coffee

1 tsp. cocoa powder

2 egg yolks

1/4 c. sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

Add the heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, whole milk, instant coffee, and cocoa powder to a medium-sized sauce pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. While the cream/milk/coffee mixture is heating, beat the egg yolks and sugar with a mixer on medium speed for approximately two minutes (in a medium-sized mixing bowl). Once the mixture on the stove reaches a simmer, reduce the heat and get ready – it’s time to temper the eggs! In a slow, steady stream (to prevent scrambling), add the heated cream mixture to the egg yolks while running the electric mixer to blend all ingredients together. After incorporating the eggs into the cream mixture, return the ice cream base back to the sauce pan and heat until the custard thickens, stirring constantly. This step takes approximately 5-7 minutes. You will see and feel the ice cream thicken. For a foolproof way to check if the ice cream base is thick enough, dip a spoon into the liquid and run your finger along the backside of the spoon. If your finger leaves a clean trail, it’s done. If the liquid is thin and runny, cook for a while longer. Transfer finished ice cream base to a bowl, stir in the vanilla, and refrigerate overnight. Freeze the cooled ice cream in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturers instructions. Enjoy! (Pictured above with a Timtam cookie.)

CJC

C is for Cookie

‘Tis the season for holiday treats. And, incidentally, a little extra winter insulation. Every year my family goes all out with the cookies – two kinds of sugar cookies, Ting-A-Lings (chocolate covered corn flakes), cream wafer sandwiches, Russian Tea Cakes (or Mexican Wedding Cakes or whatever your family calls the ball-shaped shortbread cookies speckled with nuts and dipped in powdered sugar), and Ritz cracker cookies. An unoriginal name to be sure, but I have yet to hear of or invent a more imaginative name for these annual favorites of mine.

What makes them so dang good? Mainly two ingredients – peanut butter and chocolate, the greatest culinary couple since peanut butter met jelly and macaroni found cheese. As an added benefit, they are exceedingly simple to make. You only need four ingredients, and the process involves no baking. So if Santa devoured your remaining stash of Christmas cookies, leaving only crumbs for your New Year’s Eve soiree, I recommend whipping together a batch of these tasty treats. Guests of all ages will enjoy them, and depending on your New Year’s resolution, you can send party goers home with left overs. Just be sure to save a few for yourself. I mean, you’ll have an entire year to tackle that resolution.

Ritz & Peanut Butter Sandwiches

What you’ll need:

Ritz Crackers (or similar buttery crackers)

Peanut butter, creamy or chunky – your choice

Chocolate bark

Flaky sea salt (i.e. Maldon)

Melt the chocolate bark according to package directions. I like melting the chocolate in a glass bowl fitted over a pot of simmering water. The chocolate melts evenly, remains viscous, and does not burn. While the chocolate is melting, make peanut butter sandwiches with the Ritz crackers. You can either spread the peanut butter with a butter knife or use a 1 oz. cookie scoop to plop the peanut butter onto the bottom cracker. Then use the top cracker to press down the peanut butter and make a sandwich. SUGGESTION: Only fill the cookie scoop half full of peanut butter or you’ll have too much (if there is such a thing). Once you have an inventory of sandwiches, use tongs to dip them into the chocolate bark. Place completely covered cookies onto wax paper to cool. Every 10 or 12 cookies, sprinkle the top with a few flakes of sea salt before the chocolate sets. Enjoy after the chocolate hardens. Repeat the process until you run out of crackers, peanut butter, and/or chocolate. NOTE: You can speed up the setting process by putting the cookies on a cookie sheet and sliding them into the fridge or freezer.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Ritz Cookies

I Love the Chili Weather

It’s hard to believe I haven’t blogged in four months! There have been many foods and experiences I wanted to write about, and I snapped quite a few photos. My first semester of grad school intervened, however. Reading and writing for school took priority over blogging. My goal going forward is to find a balance with school work that allows me to keep up my blog. Only time will tell how successful I am with that goal.

Back in October, I started writing a post that has been patiently waiting for my return. Now that I’m on winter break, I can finish it up! While the seasons have changed since, the sentiments and feelings remain. Perhaps even more as the chill of winter sets in.

I love the autumn time of year – leaves are bright red, orange, and yellow. Days are shorter. Warm afternoons give way to chilly nights. Smells of  burning wood and baking apples fill the air. Carved pumpkins pop up all over the neighborhood. Fall is in full swing, and as much as I look forward to summer, I eagerly await autumn’s arrival even more. Especially because it’s a prelude to winter, but that’s another story for a different post.

The greatest things about fall are the seasonal foods that help create those warm, cozy feelings I wait for all year long. You know which culinary creations I’m talking about – soups, stews, roasts, pumpkin pie, apple crisp, hot cocoa. The list goes on. Perhaps my favorite fall- and winter-time food to whip together is a great big pot of homemade chili. Both the spicy aroma and flavor warm the soul from the inside out, the perfect remedy for overcoming chilly weather. Another great thing about chili is that you can kind of make things up as you go. Screwing up the classic soup is quite difficult to do, because there are no hard and fast rules. For example, if you don’t like or have beans, the chili will be just as scrumptious without them (despite what some chili purists may say). I find a sense of excitement in the liberation from a recipe, and chili is one of the best dishes with which to experiment.

That being said, over the years I concocted a foolproof base for chili through many tests and trials. While I start every chili off with core ingredients and seasonings, I often vary their amounts – particularly when it comes to seasonings. As a result, no two pots of chili are ever the same. So, instead of thinking of my tomato-based chili recipe as an exact one, use it more as a guideline. In fact, to encourage creativity, I replaced some measurements with TYL (to your liking). Play around. Change things up. In addition to warming the home and body, making chili should be what cooking is all about – fun!

Pot of chili.

INGREDIENTS

Extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbsp

Tomato sauce, low sodium (28 oz. can)

Tomato Paste (TYL – used for thickening)

1/2 onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

Jalapeño pepper(s) (TYL – for spiciness)

1 tomato, chopped

Garlic, minced (TYL – I use 1 or 2 cloves)

1 lb ground meat (beef, pork, chicken, turkey) – optional

Beans, 1 can drained (white, red, or dark red kidney beans OR, if you’re feeling particularly saucy, use 1 can of Hot Chili Beans including the liquid in the can – choose your own adventure!)

Bonus! Try a little tequila or vodka. I mean, why not, right?

SEASONINGS – all TYL

Kosher salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

Chili powder

Ground cumin

Ground cayenne pepper

Paprika

Brown sugar

Celery salt

Hot sauce (use your favorite)

Bonus! Ground cinnamon adds a sweet, spicy warmth. Sounds weird, but it works.

DIRECTIONS

In a large Dutch oven, sauté onions, carrots, celery, peppers, tomato, and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat. Sprinkle with chili powder, salt, and pepper. When the carrots, onions, and celery are softened*, add the ground meat. Season again with chili powder, salt, and pepper. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until meat is cooked through. Once the meat is fully browned, pour in the tomato sauce, tomato paste, and beans. Stir. Season with all spices, including another round of chili powder, salt, and pepper. I typically season lightly this round. It’s always easy to add more seasonings if necessary. Correcting for over-seasoning proves rather impossible to achieve. IMPORTANT: Taste your chili. Adjust seasonings according to what you want more of. (I usually end up adding more chili powder and salt, but not always.) Bring the chili to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 2-4 hours. Enjoy topped with your favorite shredded cheese, corn chips, sour cream, and green onions. Leftovers taste even better, and if you feel like you have chili coming out your ears, it freezes well.

* If you’re willing to try the tequila or vodka, dump it in now and cook for a few minutes before adding the ground meat to the pot.

CJC

Get Stocked!

Do you ever notice how the Food Network chefs recommend using homemade chicken stock when possible? If you check out Ina Garten’s cookbooks or watch Tyler Florence, you’ll quickly discover their recipes calling for ‘chicken stock, preferably homemade.’ Even if you’re not a fan of the Food Network, you may have heard the praises of homemade stock sung by non-celebrity chefs or family cooks. At first, if you’re like me, you may react with general indifference. Who really has the time? Who really has the chickens? The store-bought varieties must be close so why bother with ALL that work?

Well, you may be surprised just how simple making chicken stock is and how much better the taste can be. Sure, it takes a commitment upwards of four hours or more, but the resulting product really makes the simple work worth your time and effort. Okay, you might still be wondering about the chickens. The recipe I use (Alton Brown’s) calls for 4 chicken carcasses, and that’s a lot of chicken bits and pieces you may not have sitting around the house. There’s an easy solution to this problem! Do you ever buy rotisserie chickens at the grocery store? At our house, we love a rotisserie chicken. It’s quick, easy, and provides multiple meals fresh from the container or repurposed into chicken salad, soup, or enchiladas. Bonus! They can also fulfill the chicken stock base requirements. Once you’ve exhausted the chicken’s usefulness (ie. all that’s left are skin and bones), wrap up the leftovers in some aluminum foil and toss them in the freezer. Repeat this process until you have collected 4 chicken carcasses, about two months of grocery shopping for us.

Now that you have your chickens, all you need is a few vegetables, herbs, a bunch of water, and a big stock pot. I typically wait until I know I’m going to be around the house all day to make the stock because you do need to skim the film off the top of the boiling goodness every 15-30 minutes throughout the cooking process. I would post the recipe I like in my blog if I wasn’t concerned about copyright infringement and breaking the law. So, just pop on over to Alton Brown’s recipe (courtesy of the Food Network) for specific ingredients and instructions. I will say in advance that I have altered Mr. Brown’s recipe slightly. Before plopping the chicken carcasses into the stock pot, I roast them in the oven for 30-45 minutes at 350-degrees to wake up the bones and juices. I can’t really say what kind of difference this makes if any, but I figure the extra roasting can’t hurt. And don’t let the 14-hour and 30-minute time scare you off. I’ve successfully made chicken stock in as few as 4 hours using the same recipe.

When all is said and done, you will be stocked (ha, ha – very punny, I know). What might you do with a gallon or more of chicken broth? One of the obvious choices is to make chicken noodle soup. Believe it or not, a quart of homemade chicken stock also makes a great gift. Think about using chicken broth in place of water, too, because as Alex Guarnaschelli often says, “water does not add flavor.” This proves especially true in recipes where any extra bit of flavor helps, such as with any form of rice or rice-based dish. There are even recipes for French Onion Soup using chicken stock instead of beef stock. The possibilities are endless, and with a freezer full of such homemade yumminess, you may never go back to store bought chicken broth again.

CJC

My Minnesota Home (Conclusion)

Days 6-12 (6/29-7/5): When I began the project of sharing the wonderful experiences Bryce and I had on our road trip to and from Minnesota, I originally planned to blog a day-by-day recap in about one week. Well, it has been more than a month since we’ve returned to Harrisonburg, and I’m still a few blogs short of the intended 12-day ode to my Minnesota home. I haven’t even reached the half-way point. Fail. Rather than drag on the Minnesota-centric entries for another six weeks, I decided to wrap the story up in this one last post.

Friday morning of our first week in Minnesota, Bryce and I jumped back into the old Altima and left the bustle of the Twin Cities behind for the much more relaxed environment of my parents’ place in rural, western Minnesota. In just over two hours, we traded the interstate corridors for county roads and skyline for shoreline. Alexandria, Minnesota is one of those picturesque midwestern communities on the edge of the prairie – think “A Prairie Home Companion” – surrounded by farms, lakes, trees, and resorts. Looking back on my childhood, I realize I took the beauty and charm of the area for granted. I wanted nothing more as a teenager than to grow up and move out. Now, I treasure the time I get to spend at home with my family.

We arrived in Alexandria ahead of schedule, so my parents thought they’d surprise everyone by not sharing that information. When my sister (Amy), 5 year-old niece (Monroe), and 3 year-old nephew (Sully) showed up early that same afternoon, they were just as ecstatic to see us as we were them. The little ones ran in to give us hugs, and once things calmed down a bit, Monroe put her hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eyes, and told me, “I’m happy you’re here.” My heart melted at that very moment, and I could not have been happier to be home in Minnesota.

Over the next few days, we spent all our time with the family. Friday night we headed ‘into town’ for drinks, karaoke, and more batter-fried cheese curds with my mom (Carrie), brother (Brad), sister (Melissa), her husband (Rick), recent high-school graduate nephew (Jordan), all-growed-up niece (Brittani), her beau (Blayne), and several friends we’ve made over the years while singing our hearts out at karaoke. We spent Saturday afternoon with Amy, her husband (Jim), Monroe, Sully, and my dad (John) tooling around Lake Mary on a rented pontoon. Bryce and I then took Monroe and Sully to see ‘Brave’ in the local movie theater later that day and came back to a campfire cookout for dinner, complete with s’mores for dessert. Yum! The entire clan met up at my parents’ farmhouse Sunday to celebrate Brittani’s 22nd birthday. Yikes, I’m old! We consumed our weight in homemade tacos (shells and all), guacamole, and Dairy Queen Ice Cream Cake before fulfilling our promises to Monroe and Sully to have a water balloon fight. Though, I must confess, we utilized buckets of water and the hose in addition to the water balloons. The greatest part of Water Wars I? Everyone participated, bringing our glorious family weekend in Alexandria – one of the best we’ve ever had – to a bittersweet close.

Monday afternoon we bade our family good-bye as we left the countryside for the metropolis once more. We returned to St. Paul just in time to catch a concert hosted by One Voice Mixed Chorus (for which Bryce was the guest conductor the fall before we moved to Virginia). If you are presented by an opportunity to attend a OneVoice concert, my advice is to take advantage as soon as you can. The chorus works hard to build community in the Twin Cities, creates awesome music, and definitely deserves your support.

Bryce and I then made our way to the Burggraaff residence, our friends’ home in Rosemount, where we finished out our stay in Minnesota enjoying great company, delicious food, and top-notch wine. The Bruggraaffs (Maggie, Dave, Mazie, and Addie) play host to us often, and we appreciate their endless hospitality. Maggie and I became fast friends while in college at the University of Minnesota Duluth. On many occasions, we skipped boring classes to go out for much more exciting meals. I know she blames me and calls me a bad influence, but I didn’t ever have to twist her arm too hard. Besides, we wouldn’t be the friends we are today if it weren’t for those seized opportunities to share a meal.

For lunch on the Fourth of July, we met up with Karly and Dustin at The Cheesecake Factory, friends we made while I worked there. I know, I know. Another chain restaurant. I’m not ashamed to admit, though, that I enjoy the food at The Cheesecake Factory (they serve some of the best hamburgers, no joke), and Bryce and I dine there when given the chance. And, we don’t always order cheesecake. Is that a crime? On a completely unrelated side note, do you ever meet someone and feel as though you’ve been friends for years? That’s how I describe the friendship I built with Karly. It’s like we already knew each other before we met. The world works in mysterious ways, and I’m glad it brought us together.

As the day burned on, and I mean burned – another 100+ degree scorcher, we stayed indoors. Maggie cooked an amazing BBQ Rib dinner which we devoured before watching fireworks. Due to the excessive heat coupled with our impending drive back to Virginia the next morning, we decided to forego the local Minnesota fireworks for the ones broadcast on TV from our nation’s capitol. When you think about it, watching the capitol fireworks in Minnesota was slightly backwards and a little funny since Bryce and I now live just two hours outside of Washington, D.C. You might say we drove half-way across the country to watch some nearby fireworks. But that would be a gross understatement, because the fireworks were the least important thing we did. More importantly, we celebrated our family and friends in the best ways we know how – by spending time together, sharing meals together, and enjoying the best my Minnesota home has to offer.

Pictures courtesy of Bryce. 🙂

CJC

My Minnesota Home (Part 4)

Day 5 (6/28): Ever since my Great Aunt Althea took my brother, sister, and I to the Mall of America (MOA) in the early 1990s, the giant shopping center has been a favorite go-to location of mine. In fact, while I lived in the Twin Cities metro area, the MOA served as my local mall, and I got to know the layout of the four-floors quite well. Along with several other stores and restaurants, I can still tell you where to find GAP (2nd floor, south side), Games By James (3rd floor, east side), and Twin City Grill (1st floor, north side). And you can’t miss Nickelodeon Universe – the amusement park which occupies the entire center of the mall and can be seen from various vantage points throughout the expansive shopping extravaganza. I even worked in a store at the MOA for a short period after graduating from college. So, whenever Bryce and I find ourselves back in Minneapolis, we charter a visit to the MOA.

The Mall of America provides a great escape from the extreme weather that one can experience in Minnesota (regardless of season). To evade the oppressive heat on our most recent visit, we met up with our friends Dianna and Carrie to meander the floors and shops. My first order of business was to get some lunch. Now, I realize the trashiness of what I’m about to say, but I’m okay with it. I enjoy a fast-food meal at Long John Silvers every once in a while. I mean, we were on vacation – what’s wrong with a little fried food frenzy? The bonus about the Long John Silvers at MOA is that they serve state-fair style cheese curds, one of the best guilty pleasures I miss most living outside of the midwest. I therefore couldn’t pass up the opportunity to indulge in these heavenly nuggets of fried cheese. At this point, you may be wondering, what are cheese curds? Well, let me tell you. Cheese curds are the oddly shaped bits of cheese formed when separating the curds from the whey, usually cheddar. In their raw state, I enjoy them right out of the fridge, on a salad, or in a hot bowl of chili, all melty and gooey. Cheese curds are most common (and popular) when battered and fried. Think mozzarella sticks, only smaller and infinitely better. I have yet to perfect frying cheese curds at home, which is probably not a bad thing…they’re definitely not a diet-friendly food. A treat every now and then never hurt anyone, though, right?

After cruising the mall for several hours and walking off roughly three of the cheese curds I ate, Bryce and I headed to Uptown in Minneapolis to meet our dear friend Paul for a chat about life’s changes and pre-dinner drinks at The Lowry. On the waitress’ recommendation, I ordered one of their signature drinks, the Snarf, a mix of plymouth gin, simple syrup, lime juice, shocktop belgian white ale, joia grapefruit, chamomile, cardamom, and soda. The drink was one of the most interesting I’ve tasted and proved good enough for a second round, and because we were meeting yet more friends for dinner later, Bryce and I just imbibed a couple drinks. The Lowry’s menu showed promise, however, and I foresee a return stop in the future to try out a few of their meal offerings.

Our fabulous time with Paul drew to a close far too quickly, and in the blink of an eye, Bryce and I drove off to meet Duane and Allan for dinner at another Uptown establishment, Roat Osha. Having met Duane and Allan through Bryce’s affiliation with OneVoice Mixed Chorus, we all became quick friends. As an added perk, Duane and Allan like food as much as we do, so we always find great places at which to share a meal and conversation. Leaving the choice of our dinner venue in their hands was a smart option as I thoroughly enjoyed my selection from their extensive Thai cuisine menu. I’m not sure Bryce liked his as much as I did mine, and shamefully, I forgot which items we ordered and cannot provide any further details. Further proof of the aging process, bah. Oh, well – we had a wonderful time catching up with Duane and Allan. I do remember we walked a few blocks to Sebastian Joe’s Ice Cream Cafe after dinner, though. Much like Grand Ole Creamery in St. Paul, Sebastian Joe’s offers a flavorful variety of homemade ice cream. I waited patiently in line with Bryce, Duane, and Allan to see if the Salty Caramel ice cream that inspired my own version was available that beautiful Minneapolis evening. Much to my pleasure, I found the flavor on the menu board and ordered a small dish, the perfect night cap to another fantastic day with the best of friends and food in my Minnesota home.

CJC

My Minnesota Home (Part 3)

Day 4 (6/27): For the first part of our stay in Minnesota, our friends Carrie and Jared (along with their puppers, Spunky) opened their beautiful Hugo home to us. Carrie, Jared, and I attended college together at the University of Minnesota in Duluth starting way back in 1995. I know I’m dating myself, but c’est la vie. Staying with Carrie and Jared provided us the chance to catch up over Carrie’s great cosmopolitans as we wound down from our days running around the metropolitan area. One of the best qualities of great friendship is the ability to not see or talk to each other much and still pick things up as if no time lapsed at all. Bryce and I are blessed by the many friends we share this type of friendship with, Carrie and Jared certainly among them. I felt guilty that as our schedule for the week filled up, I failed to set aside specific Carrie and Jared time outside of our late evening fireside chats. Bryce and I therefore jumped at the chance to have lunch with Carrie at Washington Square Bar & Grill in White Bear Lake. Knowing we planned to munch on some popcorn at our afternoon movie matinee, Bryce and I each ordered a small plate. I ate a buffalo shrimp salad which was good, exactly what I expected in terms of flavor, and the right portion size. Bryce’s tostada with chorizo, potatoes, sour cream, and fresh fixings was also good. I look forward to going back to Washington Square Bar & Grill for more.

Bryce and I happened to arrive in Minnesota at approximately the same time as an intense heat wave. The area sweltered in 105-degree temperatures which felt more like 115 with the heat index. Being that outdoor activities enticed neither one of us in those conditions, we opted to see a movie and stay cool during the afternoon of our 4th day in Minnesota. My favorite movie theater in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is the Woodbury 10 Theatre, and I truly miss seeing movies there on a regular basis. Actually, the theater may be my overall favorite venue for films. First-run movie matinees cost a mere $4.00 while evening shows are only $6.00. On top of the affordable ticket prices, Woodbury 10 sells the best popcorn in town. Why? Because its topped with real butter! Who uses real butter anymore? As far as I’m concerned, not enough theaters do. The flavor is far superior to that buttery flavored oil most places use. So, for two matinee tickets, a tub of popcorn, and two sodas we spent $18.00. $18.00! I think that is the price for two matinee tickets at our local movie multiplex here in Harrisonburg. How depressing. Thankfully, we didn’t think about that as we watched ‘Prometheus,’ a plodding, sci-fi thriller which, outside of its obvious plot holes, made for a great afternoon escape.

When we were home in Minnesota for Christmas and again when I returned for a funeral in March, I put together a gathering of sorts at the Granite City Food & Brewery, a chain restaurant in the suburb of Eagan and one of our usual picks when we lived in the Twin Cities. The response in December and March proved quite positive, prompting us once more to pick Granite City as the location in which to meet as many of our friends at one time as possible on this Wednesday night. While the restaurant offers a wide range of popular menu fare and a few made-in-house brews, what really draws us in is the comfortable setting that allows a group of 10 or more people to sit back, relax, and truly enjoy the company of one another. Plus, Granite City makes some of the tastiest French Onion and Cheddar Ale soups I have had the pleasure of trying. In fact, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I crave their French Onion soup from time to time. Perhaps the true underlying reason for selecting Granite City Food & Brewery lies in my addiction. Oh, well. Any excuse to see Kelly and her 2-year-old daughter Lily (who stole the show), Allison, Dianna, Maggie, Dave, Laura, and Matt works for me!

CJC

My Minnesota Home (Part 2)

Day 3 (6/26): Last summer we spent our free time with as many people as possible, checking off our Minnesota bucket list of things to do before moving to Virginia. For dinner one June evening, we met our friends Karly and Dustin at Broders’ Pasta Bar before heading out to see the extended version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in the theater. You may recognize the place, actually – Guy Fieri featured the bistro on an episode of ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ not too long ago. The food we ate at Broders’ that night almost matched the quality of the wonderful company we shared and commanded another visit. Unfortunately we were unable to return before we moved away.

As we pieced together our Back in Minnesota Calendar of Events, we needed an evening with Alisha and Steve, a couple I’ve known for years via my career with Red Lobster and who have become close friends to both Bryce and I throughout our relationship. Though we had been back in the Twin Cities on a couple of occasions, our schedules never quite aligned with Alisha’s or Steve’s. Seeing them, therefore, became a priority for us. Once we had a date on the books, we tossed a few different restaurant ideas around until Bryce brilliantly suggested Broders’ in Minneapolis. Genius!

Broders’ serves seriously delicious, fresh-made pasta in an enchanting bistro setting and offers one of the best summer dining deals in Minneapolis. On Tuesdays through Thursdays, from 4:30 to 6:30, you can enjoy a plate of marinated olives, a sharable salad, two pasta dishes, and a half bottle of selected house wine for just $30. Believe me when I say it’s a steal, especially when you take into account the quality of Broders’ food. We practically devoured our creamy carbonara and spicy puttanesca and highly suggest trying both dishes. Alisha and Steve ordered from the Dinner Menu rather than the Summer Supper Menu and found their choices of lasagna al granchio and the daily risotto special to be equally as impressive. The chefs struck the right balance between seasoning and herbs with each sauce, cooked the pasta perfectly al dente, and produced a proper pasta-to-sauce ratio (or rice-to-sauce in Steve’s case). Even though the four of us wound up sufficiently stuffed, we opted for the added decadence of a flourless chocolate cake and ice cream stuffed profiteroles to top off our meals. Not surprisingly, the desserts lived up to the high standards set forth by dinner. Definitely check out Broders’ Pasta Bar if you get the chance, and if you don’t mind an early dinner, the Summer Supper Menu makes for a treat on the palate and your pocketbook.

As an added bonus to enjoying dinner early we were able to spend more time hanging out with Alisha and Steve. Broders’ Pasta Bar sits a few short blocks from Lake Harriet, one of the beautiful chain of lakes within Minneapolis. We drove up to the lake, parked our cars, and walked around, reminiscing about old times and sharing new stories with one another. We meandered over to the band shell where we caught a quick bit of a free band concert and wandered through the adjacent rose and zen gardens. Don’t worry, we stopped to smell the roses – literally. In the zen garden, the park and recreation board set up a neat little origami station with step-by-step instructions posted on, well, cement posts and recycled paper. Of the four of us, only Bryce successfully folded his square piece of paper to match the crane. The rest of our failed attempts created much laughter and fantastic new memories we added to those we made over dinner and took with us as we parted.

CJC