Sunday, October 23, 2011

Restaurant Rumination :: Wise Acre Eatery

This weekend I headed over to the Tangletown neighborhood of Minneapolis to check out Wise Acre Eatery with some friends.  I've been wanting to check out this farm-to-table restaurant for some time now, and let me tell you, it was well worth the wait.  Except that I shouldn't have waited so long... 

Just on paper, Wise Acre is pretty astounding.  The two owners of Wise Acre are farm boys at heart, and after starting the neighboring Tangletown garden center, they decided to begin a restaurant venture serving meals sourced from their family farm in Plato, Minnesota.  The menu states that the ingredients have been harvested within the last 24 hours from the 130-acre farm, and that is certainly a boast-worthy quality.  You can taste the freshness and the love for the ingredients in every bite.  In fact, my friend said that he'd never had such amazing tasting beef before.  And it wasn't due to any spices or seasonings...the inherent flavor of the food was what delighted him most.  We decided that it was probably because the cows are happy!

The atmosphere itself  is lovely.  It felt warm and friendly inside the small space, complete with a small bar and a spot up front showcasing all of the goodies available for purchase.  (You can buy eggs, canned items, and lots of other great items right from the restaurant!)  We sat outside because the weather was still quite nice and the patio was dotted with large, space heaters to cut down on the chill.  So I could see the hustle and bustle inside, but I was able to enjoy the fresh air with my friends.  Awesome. 

And the food....oh my the food......  Holy stars it was amazing!  To start, I ordered the pickle plate for the table.  I love pickles and will often eat an entire jar in one sitting (not even joking), but pickled veggies are a bit of a question mark.  This plate featured pickled eggs, pickled garlic, and other pickled vegetables, offering enough for a few bites for each of us.  Turns out, I don't mind pickled veggies and I'm now obsessed with pickled garlic!  The pickling wasn't overwhelming so the sweetness of the vegetables really shone through.  I had half a mind to buy a jar of pickled garlic before I left, but I don't want to make a habit out of eating jars of garlic. 

My main course was similarly fantastic: harvest crepe cannelloni.  Sweet and delicious crepes were rolled into cannelloni shapes and stuffed with a ratatouille made with all fresh vegetables.  Served alongside the faux pasta rolls was a great mix of creamy and kerneled corn that was cooked to perfection and some broccoli florets with basil and roasted almonds.  Blew my MIND.  I wish I could say that I tackled my dinner with some restraint, but I had gobbled up everything on my plate before my friends had finished half of their burgers.  I just couldn't help myself.  So I started helping myself to bits off of surrounding plates and was able to try a few more options.  

My four friends ordered some of the burger options, which came with a side of fries and wild rice slaw.  The wild rice slaw could be a meal all on it's own.  Think of a traditional slaw but subtract the often overpowering (but admittedly delicious) dressing, add a subtle sweetness, and throw in hearty grains of wild rice.  You've got yourself a great side!  And in perfect fall fashion, the french fries were served with a homemade pumpkin cranberry ketchup.  Swoon worthy, for sure. 

But hands down, the best part of the meal was the dessert.  We ordered two sundaes, one a traditional brownie sundae with vanilla custard and hot fudge, and one specialty sundae made with rosemary custard and poached pears.  I have no words to describe the amazing deliciousness of this rosemary custard.  Subtle rosemary flavor...creamy custard...happiness all around.  I desperately want more.  The presentation of the sundaes in little, squat jars was cute, but it made it challenging to get at the corners of the brownie tucked at the bottom!  But among friends, messiness is encouraged, and we all made it work!

So if you haven't left for Wise Acre Eatery and you are still reading this blog, shame on you. Go there right now.  The dinner options are fantastic and the breakfast menu is making me very excited. They don't take reservations, but if you have to wait, enjoy the decor (there's an adorable print in the women's restroom!), and contemplate a pickled garlic purchase.  Now stop reading and start eating!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Sandwiches

This last Sunday I co-hosted a baby shower for my friend Tara, the first of my high school friends to get pregnant!  After much discussion, us three co-hostesses decided to forgo the traditional baby-themed showers and go with a fall theme instead.  The fall colors fit perfectly with Tara's nursery scheme and we had the shower on a beautiful fall day, complete with farmers' market flowers and candles.  So elegant.

For the menu, we opted for a dessert buffet in the afternoon.  And just to balance out the food, we had an awesome cheese plate and some pre-made palmiers from Trader Joe's as our savory options.  The spread was insane! 

We had cupcakes, a carrot cake, individual pudding cups topped with a mint sprig, and espresso bars.  And my contribution to the party included chocolate peanut butter balls, this time with a teaspoon of cinnamon and nutmeg added into the peanut butter mixture, and pumpkin spiced pies.  I found this recipe on a Better Homes & Gardens website that my mom sent me with 100 recipes for pumpkin.  Ummm, delish.  These little whoopie pies were perfectly sweet but not too intense and had a delightful spice that was perfect for fall.  I doubled the recipe to make enough for the baby shower, and you can shape the cookies as large or small as you want to suit your needs. 

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Sandwiches
From Better Homes & Gardens
makes about 16 medium-sized pies

For Cookies:
1 can cooked pumpkin
1 box spiced cake mix (love those shortcuts)
1/3 cup softened butter
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk

For spiced filling:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3.5 oz marshmallow fluff
1/3 cup softened butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  In a large mixing bowl, beat pumpkin and butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add cake mix, eggs, and milk; beat on low speed until combined, and then on medium speed for 1 minute.

Drop mounds of batter 3 inches apart on cookie sheet; keep remaining batter chilled. Bake 15 minutes or until set and lightly browned around edges. Carefully remove from parchment or foil; cool on wire rack. Repeat with remaining batter, lining cooled cookie sheets each time with new parchment or foil. If desired, place cookies in a covered storage container with waxed paper between layers to prevent sticking.  Keep cookies in the refrigerator  until ready to serve.  (They get tacky if you keep them at room temp as per the original recipe -- they were easier to handle and eat if chilled.)

Up to 2 hours before serving, beat together all ingredients for marshmallow filling.  Put the filling into a large ziplock bag.  Clip the corner of the bag, and squeeze out a layer of marshmallow cream on one cookie.  Top with a second cookie to make a sandwich.  Repeat until finished making cookie sandwiches.  Serve immediately or cover and chill up to 2 hours.

Monday, October 17, 2011

New Orleans Party: Beignets

This weekend I was ridiculously busy.  I co-hosted two parties, and then decided to go to a 10pm concert Sunday night to wrap up my weekend.  Needless to say, Monday is really challenging me!  But back to the fun times!  My dear friend is getting married in December (in Key West!) and I co-hosted her bachelorette party on Saturday night.  She got engaged last fall in New Orleans, so my foodie friend and fellow co-host Sarah decided we should throw a themed party, complete with New Orleans inspired appetizers, drinks, and decorations.  Sarah cooked up some Cajun crab cakes, the bride-to-be's sister brought an amazing black-eyed pea salsa, and the maid of honor wowed everyone with a shrimp and andouille sausage appetizer.  In addition to my party game (Guess Those Abs!), I contributed some homemade beignets as the sweet option to our appetizer table.

I'd never heard of beignets, but when I saw the recipe, I knew it would be a winner.  What's not to love about pieces of fried dough covered in powdered sugar?  Nothing.  The answer is absolutely nothing.  The dough was very easy to make and after rising, I had enough dough for maybe four hundred million beignets.  I made about a third of the dough into beignets and was able to get maybe 3-4 dozen little pieces of happiness out of that chunk.  When dropped into the oil, the dough puffs up, turning into a fluffy little square of sweetness.  They were insanely good warm, delicious at room temp, and were still holding up well the next morning as a makeshift breakfast!

adapted from Paula Deen's recipe
makes about 9 dozen beignets

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1/2 cup sugar
1 envelope active dry yeast
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 cup evaporated milk
7 cups bread flour
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
Nonstick spray
Medium-size bottle of vegetable oil
3 cups of powdered sugar

Mix water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl and let sit for 10 minutes.

In another bowl, beat the eggs, salt and evaporated milk together. Mix egg mixture to the yeast mixture.  Add 3 cups of the flour to the yeast mixture and stir to combine.

Add the butter and continue to stir while adding the remaining flour. Remove dough from the bowl, place onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray. Put dough into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a towel. Let rise in a warm place for at least 2 hours.

Preheat oil in a large pan to 350 degrees.  The oil need not be more than about 2 inches up the side of the pan.  Add the powdered sugar to a ziplock bag and set aside. 

Roll the dough out to about 1/4-inch thickness and cut into 1-inch squares.   (I rolled out the dough in chunks to make it easier.)  Place a handful of the dough pieces into the hot oil and deep fry, flipping constantly, until they become golden brown.  After beignets are fried, drain them  on paper towels, and then toss them into the bag of powdered sugar.

Continue until all pieces are cooked.  Serve warm and enjoy.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Friends on Food :: Baking Soda & Beer

Do you ever have those weeks (months....) where you are so short on cash that you can't justify going to the grocery store to buy new ingredients for a fabulous dinner?  That's where I am at right now!  My pantry is full of random ingredients, and my task this week has been trying to make those random things into a decent dinner.  Last night I cooked up some rice, mashed in a chipotle veggie burger, and topped it off with shredded cheese....not bad!  Hopefully in the coming days I'll be able to wow you with some culinary skills and get back to blogging.  In the meantime, I'm going to post a Friends on Food that sprung immediately to mind when I was thinking about the sad state of my bank account! 

Season Nine -- The One with the Boob Job

Chandler: You know what? You know what? I think we're making too big a deal out of this, okay? So we pay our bills a little late this month and maybe next month we cut back on a few things. And maybe we start eating out of Joey's refrigerator for a change. You're a chef...what can you make out of baking soda and beer?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

French Toasted Grilled Cheese

Nearly everyone loves a grilled cheese sandwich.  From an early age, we dine on these classic sandwiches at school lunch tables and at the home dinner table, often served alongside a bowl of steaming tomato soup.  It's an easy and cheap sandwich to make in a pinch, which is probably why this sandwich has stood the test of time in the American household.  And I've had more than my fair share of grilled cheese made with sandwich bread and Kraft singles.  There's still something nostalgic about this combination that sends me right back to cold winter nights having a quick dinner with my brother and sister after we were out sledding or pelting each other with snowballs. 

For the last couple of weeks, I've been ruminating about a more adult take on a grilled cheese sandwich.  I wanted to make something above and beyond your standard grilled cheese and tackle this sandwich with more than just fancy cheese.  I pondered as I walked through the grocery store, and considered substituting a garlic asiago loaf for the typical sandwich bread.  But I didn't want to add too much complexity of flavor.  I wanted to highlight the grilled cheese in a new, big way.  Finally, a light bulb!  What if, like a Monte Cristo sandwich, I dredged the bread slices in an egg batter, fried them up on the griddle, THEN added the cheese?

Success!  The resulting grilled cheese was everything I had hoped for and more.  The French toasted bread slices were toasted on the outside but soft and delicious on the inside.  The egg battering added a subtle richness to the sandwich, but it didn't overwhelm the grilled cheese-ness of my dinner!  For cheeses, I went with a smoked Gouda for a light, smokey flavor and a thin slice of sharp cheddar to add a bit of a bite.  I also threw on some sliced heirloom tomatoes to round out the grilled cheese and add some freshness.  It was decadent...cheesy...and oh-so-amazing.  I served my sandwich with a side of lightly dressed greens.  And then I devoured that sandwich in an instant.  If you are looking for a kicked-up grilled cheese to satisfy your adult tastes, look no further! 

French Toasted Grilled Cheese
Makes two sandwiches

4 1-inch slices of a large, Italian loaf of bread
4 thin slices of smoked Gouda cheese
2 thin slices of white sharp cheddar cheese
2 slices of tomato
3 eggs
3 tbls milk
Salt & pepper
Butter or cooking spray

In a shallow dish (I use a pie pan), crack the three eggs and add the milk.  Whisk with a fork until combined.  Add a pinch of salt and pepper.  Dredge the bread slices in the egg mixture, allowing each side of the bread to sit in the egg for a minute or so. 

Grease a griddle or large skillet with butter or cooking spray and heat the pan or griddle to about medium heat.  Once the pan is warm, add the bread slices.  You may need to do this in stages depending on the size of your pan.  Toast the bread until it is lightly browned on one side, then flip.  

Once the other side is lightly browned, assemble the sandwiches.  Place two slices of Gouda, one slice of cheddar, and one slice of tomato on one slice of toasted bread and top with another slice.  If you were able to cook all four slices, repeat to make your second sandwich.  Continue to cook the sandwiches, flipping occasionally until the bread is a deep golden brown and the cheese has melted. 

Remove the sandwiches from the pan and cut in half.  Serve alongside some salad greens.  Try not to swoon.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Restaurant Review :: Birchwood Cafe

Marathon weekend has come and gone!  After getting a perfect dose of carbs courtesy of some simple pasta with tomato sauce and garlic bread the night before, I managed to rock out another personal record and drop 13 minutes off last year's time.  The race itself was fun and the roads were lined with spectators cheering and willing us runners on to the final miles.  I was in a lot of pain afterwards and felt completely justified in grabbing two beers at The Liffey in downtown St. Paul.  That night though, I couldn't fathom eating anything except plain rice.  Yup, plain rice.  That's all!  So the next morning I took a vacation day and my friend Lindsay and I went out for a delicious breakfast.

How have I never heard of Birchwood Cafe in the Longfellow Seward neighborhood (thanks reader!) of Minneapolis?!  The menu is full of tasty offerings made with locally sourced, organic, and sustainable ingredients.  Birchwood Cafe also features more than a single vegetarian they have vegan and gluten-free options!  The breakfast menu actually had an omelet featuring tofu.  Tofu!  Again, how have I never heard of this place?!   Birchwood serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it has a pretty excellent display of pastries and desserts. I also scoped out that Birchwood has half-priced wine on Monday and Tuesday nights. Awe-some.

Besides being one of my new favorite restaurants for the fabulous food, Birchwood Cafe is adorable.  This restaurant is tucked away in a quaint Minneapolis neighborhood, surrounded by big trees, unique houses, and it is conveniently located near one of the new bike sharing sites.  There are tables outside for enjoying lovely Minnesota weather as well as a bar table set against the large windows, perfect for sitting and watching the day breeze by.  I could have sat perched on that bar stool all day watching the fall colors, drinking my coffee, and avoiding anything involving walking. 

can you see the beautiful fall leaves reflected in the coffee?
Since I'd burned a bazillion calories the day before, I indulged in the waffles along with a side of two scrambled eggs.  The waffles came drenched in a fresh berry sauce that dotted my waffles with sweet blueberries and negated any need for syrup.  I was surprised at how well the waffles held up to the berry juice, but each bite was still filled with waffle-y substance and delish berries.  I took a few of the berry-less corners of the waffle and dipped them into the syrup just to see what it tasted like.  Ummm, full of maple flavor but without all of that sickly sweetness and over stickiness.  It was like maple juice.  Mmmmmm.  Berry maple waffles of joy!  The side of scrambled eggs was similarly perfect -- light, fluffy eggs cooked to perfection. 

Lindsay's omelet came with a side of roasted potatoes that were unlike any breakfast roasted potatoes I've ever seen.  They were little round potato crisps with a hint of salt and rosemary.  Perfect for dipping into ketchup or great edible plates for some eggs. 

Birchwood Cafe was firing on all cylinders for our brunch.  It was the most perfectly AWESOME place to celebrate my fourth marathon finish.  And you can bet I will be back there...frequently.  Like tomorrow.  And the next day.....and the next.....