Sunday, May 31, 2009

Northwoods Grocery Shopping

I'm at the cabin just about every weekend in the summer unless I have a serious conflict back in the cities. It's my retreat and I cherish my weekends up there, regardless of the weather. If the sun isn't shining, or the fish aren't biting, there is still good beer to drink (currently back on a New Glarus kick) and my mom easily runs the best kitchen in Burnett County, and possibly all of Northwestern Wisconsin (maybe a bit biased). The only issue is that I hate to leave and often stay pretty late in the day on Sunday which means I miss out on the farmers markets and often can't hit the co-ops before they close. Given the circumstances, I only have a few options if I want to eat well on Monday: 1.) Scavenge the family CSA 2.) Win big at the local meat raffle or 3.) Go shopping Northwoods style.

I prefer to do my shopping Northwoods style. Over the course of the 11 years that I've been heading to the Siren area I have found a few good spots to source local, wholesome foods that are raised in a respectable manner that I both appreciate and savor. I'll take you on a brief tour of my shopping excursion on Sunday evening as I was dragged kicking and screaming back to reality.

The first stop was at the Burnett Dairy Cooperative in Grantsburg, WI. We've been going to the cooperative for years to pick up perfectly smoked Goudas and other cheeses for cocktail hour on the lake. There is also an assortment of other great happy hour fare (smoked meats, spreads and crackers) and I tend to stop on the way home to pick up a good snacking cheese or a little something to slice for sandwiches during the week. Their cheese selection ranges from the classic American varieties to some tasty European inspired offerings. It's cheese and it's Wisconsin, so you just can't go wrong. Can't make it to Granstburg? The Linden Hills Co-op has a small selection of cheeses from the folks in Burnett County to help you get your cheese fix.

Next stop is one of my favorites, Hennessey's Hidden Pond Farm. The friendly folks at Hennessey's seem as if they are from another time, where things move a bit slower and classic farming integrity is yet to be compromised. They also run a small bed and breakfast, but the reason I hang around is for their natural Buelingo Beef. I know that the word "natural" has lost some of its buzz in comparison to say pasture raised or grass-fed, but I still appreciate what these folks are doing, and think their products are pretty darn good.

I'll start by saying that I prefer grass-fed beef to grain-fed for a number of reasons that likely warrant a different post. I realize that grass-fed beef will never have the "merits" of prime beef - you just can't coax that much fat from such a natural diet, and it's hard enough to achieve a prime quality steak from a grain-fed steer as it is. However, I feel that if prepared correctly, you can have incredibly flavorful cuts of beef that are sourced outside of the realms of the grain-fed stockyards. Hennessey's cattle bridge the gap between grass and corn-fed, offering their animals a diet of hay, corn, soybeans, sunflower, wheat and barley (and thankfully, no animal bi-products). They also have plenty of room to move around and live a peaceful existence, and at $3.10 a pound for ground beef and $2.00 a pound for short ribs, it's tough to beat (they also sell whole halves and quarters in addition to organic eggs and Amish chickens). I think their ground beef is best mixed with some minced onion, an egg, a pinch of fresh thyme and some really good Dijon. Mix thoroughly, form into patties, grill to medium and melt some of that gorgeous Burnett Dairy cheese and you are in for a serious cookout.

Every Minnesota boy likes some meat and cheese, but eventually you need to have some vegetables to keep the blood flowing. I like to balance out the food pyramid at the Melon Vine Organic Farm just down the road from Hennessey's in Pine City, MN. In addition to seasonal produce, they sell a variety of flowers and bedding plants to start your own organic garden. I was already fixed for plants from an early season trip to the Mill City Farmers Market so I decided to focus on the produce. I wasn't very optimistic for variety this early in the season, but managed to find some gorgeous asparagus. Buying straight from the source enabled me to pick up a bunch for only $3, quite a bit less then if I bought from a farmer who had to drive down to a city market. The perfect spears cooked up quickly and tenderly with a little coat of olive oil, some freshly cracked pepper, and a nice little shake of sea salt. Simplicity, indeed.

I'm fortunate enough to have my own northern oasis to escape to on the weekends, but eventually the the beer and food runs out and I have to head home. Thankfully I've met some awesome purveyors who can help ease the pain of the Sunday evening ride home and subside the sting of Monday with a little farm-fresh boost to start my week.

Happy Eating,


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Epic Sandwich: W.A. Frost's Old-School Cheeseburger

No truffle oil, no foie gras and no Kobe beef anywhere to be found. Some of these ingredients can be found on W.A. Frost and Company's menu over the course of the year, but you won't find them on their classic cheeseburger - thank goodness. It seems that many restaurants and gastropubs are putting an emphasis on dressing up the American classic, but sometimes I need to kick inventiveness to the curb and just enjoy a good old-school cheeseburger, and that is exactly what you get when you order the cheeseburger off the bar menu on Frost's perfect Patio.

The burger equation at Frost is quite simple. Straight up Angus is grilled to order and topped with your favorite cheese. They stack a ripe tomato, crisp lettuce and a round of snappy red onion on top the the juicy burger and shove it all between an artfully toasted bun. The freshness of the vegetables and the purity of the beef brings back memories of the days when a burger was the picture of savory simplicity.

Sandwich Rating: Tasty. I'll admit I still love a nice creative burger, but on a hot night, there may be nothing better than the grilled classic, a cold beer and the perfect companion.

Need more to get your sandwich fix? Check out my full review of Frost's sirloin sandwich here.

Happy Eating,


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A very odd night at The Strip Club

It's not what you think. I'm talking about the steak house in St. Paul, not the meat market you all are thinking about. Last week a few chums and I decided to catch up over dinner and a steakhouse seemed to fit the bill. We decided to hit the Strip Club because we had all heard good things from many sources and were excited to try it. I've always wanted to try JD Fratzke's food, and the fact that they serve grass-fed beef from Thousand Hills sealed the deal.

The place sports an old-school speakeasy decorum with lots of dark woods and a cool spiral staircase leading up to elevated seating. We had the big table right in front of the "fireplace" that also serves as the office door. I settled down with a FINNEGANS while my comrades ordered their Manhattans and thought to myself, "I'm going to like this place."

Turns out I was actually kind of wrong. As noted above, the high expectations were based on the names and all the strong recommendations, but the whole night was just really odd. The drinks were in and we were asked if we wanted to order some small plates. We said we needed just a moment, but were ignored for what seemed like an overtly long time (refuse to assign minutes because -they get blown out of proportion). When our waiter made it back over we ordered a couple of small plates and another round to fill our long-since-empty glasses. Again, the wait seemed long, but the largest offense was the staggered service. The lads who ordered bread received their items first. Then a few minutes later the grilled romaine salads came out. Quite some time after that, the shrimp boil and duck prosciutto arrived. I sat there, still waiting for my salad (a cold salad, mind you) for another few moments after the last small plates arrived. The waiter was kind enough to bring a free round of deviled eggs for our troubles, so at that point I told him to "cancel the salad." He claimed they had just plated it, which I took as code for "oh shit, I forgot" and it arrived a few minutes later - right before my entree showed up which is about the worst service blunder imaginable. The starters all arrived at different times and of course mine showed last, with my entree the first out in hot (soon to be cold) pursuit.

Again, the entree delivery was staggared, so I waited patiently for everyone to get their food. Eventually our friends told us to get started as they were now sharing our frustrations. Then it hit me...I ordered a pork dish (on a tip I received from a very credible source, plus I grill grass-fed steaks at home all the time) served with a cherry, bacon BBQ sauce. The dish that sat before me, now cold from the wait (stupid manners) had micro greens on it. Cherry bacon BBQ sauce and micro greens just don't seem to go together. I took a bite and quickly realized this was pork, but not the preparation I ordered. Well sometimes, you just say "screw it" and shut up and eat.

By then I was so hungry, I was just happy to have food (by the by, the pork was served with a citrus and chili-like sauce that would have been really good had the pork still been warm. I thought the comedy of errors was over for the night, but then our check showed and I realized I was over charged for the dish I had originally ordered - thankfully this was a mistake we could have corrected. I tipped back the rest of my beer and began to ponder how this could have gone so wrong? Still, at the end of the day I still had a great night out with the guys in a cool spot. I just wish I hadn't bothered with the food (note - most people did enjoy their food) and just had a few more cocktails for my dinner.

I doubt I'll be back, but have to believe all those reputable sources I heard rave about the place must have known what they were talking about, and hope that this was an isolated incident (I honestly thought I'd freakin' love this place). Regardless, I don't think there is any reason for me to head back given my particular experience.

Happy Eating,


Epic Sandwich: Brasa

I was jonesin' for something spicy, so I headed over to Brasa to try some of their awesome Creole, Latin and Caribbean inspired grub. Full review here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Epic Sandwich: b. Matthews' Fried Green Tomato Sandwich

Every year my family and I take a fishing trip down to the bayou. We usually head to New Orleans to get our blood warmed up, crush some giant redfish and eat some killer food. This year would be a bit different as I had a cousin gettin' hitched in Hilton head, so we decided to take so we packed our bags and headed there instead. I missed New Orleans and especially Cochon, but had an awesome time at the wedding and in Savannah, GA the day after.

Now, all good weddings are usually followed up with an immense hangover, and this venture was no different. Needless to say, this boy was hungry by the time he got to Savannah. Now, there were tons of restaurants serving creole Cuisine down by the riverwalk, but everything seemed like a total tourist trap.  That was until we headed up to the city and found a very cozy looking restaurant named b. Matthews Eatery. My brother and I looked at the menu quick and were delighted to see some of our cajun favorites. A quick glance inside at all the locals packed in the place verified that this was indeed the spot to eat.

When it came to ordering there was no question in my mind - Fried Green Tomato Sandwich, all the way. I love fried green tomatoes, and they're impossible to find around here (Big E where are you!?). The menu description was fairly blase - wheatberry bread with sharp cheddar cheese, tomato, oregano aioli and fried green tomatoes - seems unimpressive, but the FGT are key.

The bread was soft and chewy and the cheddar was nice and sharp, but the true hero of this sandwich was the perfectly crispy, yet soft fried green discs of tomato. The raw texture is similar to an apple, but it really softens up as it cooks. The breading (this is the make-it-or-break-it part of the sandwich) fried up perfectly and the herb mixture was simply intoxicating. A really nice oregano aioli was seriously strong, boasting a wonderful accompanying flavor that added an awesome savory twist to the sandwich and made for a deliciously satisfying lunch. I never would have thought to pair fresh oregano with the FGT outside of spices in the breading, so it was nice to see it all together.

Sandwich rating: Tasty. There wasn't much to this sandwich outside of the aioli and tomatoes, which I would have devoured on their own, but it was just really nice to get an old comforting favorite on my last day of vacation. Without it, the trip would not have been complete. Oh, and by the way their cheese grits were good too!

Happy eating,


Monday, May 11, 2009

Mill City Farmers Market: Short on produce, but still awesome

I think any farmers market, and what they stand for (local produce, sustainable practices, supporting local businesses) is awesome, but the Mill City farmers market may be the very best in the state. 

The variety of sellers and the setting are second to none. I love the idea of locally produced foods for sale in the shadow of the Guthrie. I think it's a symbol of how far the local food movement is reaching. The market made its chilly debut on May 9th and even though few sellers had produce (some good looking greens, awesome asparagus, a whole pile of fiddle heads and some good lookin' ramps) there were still lots of other great items for sale. I dare you to try and find a better gathering of local crafts, meats (including yak and rabbit!), cheeses, art and baked goods (the tarts looked awesome) in a single setting. It's the perfect spot on a Saturday to gather a great breakfast, a hot cup of coffee and all the goods needed for a killer meal.

The people who come here to sell their goods simply could not be nicer or more knowledgeable and the diversity of products is simply amazing, even this early in the season. I'll start heading up to the cabin pretty much every weekend for the majority of the growing season, so I'm glad I made it out to the opening. I was even able to buy some nice heirloom tomato starters and all the necessities for a gorgeous Mother's day feast to celebrate the woman who taught me how to love and appreciate food. 

In addition to finding some new suppliers, I was able to work in a second trip to the chef shack and finally got my hands on some fresh, flavorful and truly unique tongue tacos. The tongue was surprisingly tender, and tasted like nothing I've ever experienced - there really is no comparison. The generous piles of flavorful salsa, plump avocado and fresh cheese really rounded out what was probably the most interesting snack I've ever encountered. I doubt I'll make it a regular part of my diet, but part of the reason I love food is for the adventure. 

If you're looking to hit the shack this summer I suggest getting there early as the demand for those darn-good donuts would have given the KFC free chicken fiasco lines a run for the money, but honestly, they're wroth the wait. My mom was also nice enough to share her Thousand Hills All-Beef Hot Dog. All you need to do to this dog is slather a bit of their grainy mustard (they have a really good looking apricot and ramp mustard too!) and bacon ketchup on the perfectly toasted bun and you have an awesome snack.

Be sure to check out this market and all the other fabulous food-based fun in Minnesota, and don't forget to support our local farmers and all their great practices.

Happy Eating!


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mississippi Market - shopping co-op on a budget

I am making more of an effort to shop exclusively at co-ops or farmer's markets. Now, I could run off a whole list of reasons why I've recently made this switch, but rather than bore you to death, I'll just give you my favorite one - I like keeping my money closer to home. Most of the products I buy at Co-ops and everything I buy from the farmers is domestically sourced and much of it comes from very close to home if I pay close attention to seasonality. I like keeping the money as close to my community as possible, and I like that it gives me the ability to learn more about my sources, how they raise their products and keeps me more in tune with the local food scene.

Now, shopping at a co-op CAN be expensive. Goods are usually organic or sustainably raised, which usually leads to healthier and better product in MY opinion, but it also makes it more expensive to produce, which in turn makes the goods more expensive to purchase. Thankfully our friends at the Mississippi Market in St. Paul has pieced together a course to help educate folks on how to make co-op shopping as affordable as possible. The class I attended a few weeks ago was both well attended and insightful. I already knew about several of the strategies they taught us, but I also learned a great deal more. I've listed a couple of good take-aways in no particular order:

1.) Arrive organized. OK, so most people are thoughtful enough to whip up a grocery list when they go shopping - no big deal. I'm talking about about putting together an Excel sheet that lists out all the major categories and each item that I typically need in them. It helps me stay focused and I can even type in the bulk item numbers on the sheet so I can be quick at the store. If it didn't make the list, it doesn't go in the cart. If you want to update frequently you can even keep track of pricing. I've found so far that I have less waste than usual using this method. I think the best way to do this is to create one sheet and put it in a transparent sleeve or have it laminated. Instead of writing a list every week you simply mark it up with a dry erase marker and erase when you are done.

2.) Always take inventory. I'm amazed at how many times I've gone to the store and purchased a number of goods only to come home and realize that I still had more than enough, or that I missed something I needed. Taking a solid inventory beforehand can not only save you money in duplicate purchases, but it can also save you time from running back to the store. I always try and build a stock of things I use all the time to eliminate confusion, but taking inventory is simply the best way to help build your list.

3.) Plan meals. Sit down before you go to the store and look at your week. How many meals do you need to plan? Once you've got that nailed down figure out what you want to make. Crack a cook book or hit Epicurious to plan out your meals - the ingredient list becomes your grocery list. I find that if I have my plan ahead of time I end up getting exactly what I need and skip on the non-essentials which are typically more expensive. Make sure your plan is built around perishables and always take leftovers into consideration - nothing is worse then spending money on food right after you've thrown out a perfectly good meal that you left in the fridge too long.

4.) 3 Days 3 ways. Head to Mississippi Market's site to check out their 3 days 3 ways program. Essentially they give you the blue print for stretching a few items across several meals - in the winter I roast a chicken on Sunday and it gives me a solid dinner that night, with leftover meat for sandwiches, salads and another dinner or two later in the week.

4.) Easy on the coupons. You don't really save anything if the coupon persuades you to buy something you don't need. They're designed by the manufacturer to try and get you to buy. Now if it's something you need, stock up. If you don't need it don't buy it.

5.) Hit the bulk section. This seems like a no-brainer, but I mean really study it. I always blew past it or only stopped to get almonds. Once I past it I would go buy packaged whole wheat flower, cous-cous, beans and rolled oats. Then I attended this class and realized I could buy all that in bulk for much cheaper while utilizing less packaging materials. If you haven't stopped by your co-op's bulk section recently, then check it out. You'll be surprised at everything you can get.

Now this isn't a holistic view of all the strategies (shopping seasonally may be the best), but they are simply things I heard for the first time or things I was already doing that I could easily expand upon. I find my total bills are much less then they used to be and I'm eating much better and more creativly then ever before. I strongly encourage you to take up these practices or to keep them up and help support our local producers. I think you'll find the journey most enjoyable.

Happy Eating,


Friday, May 8, 2009

Contnet Update: Epic Sandwich

I've decided to consolidate and concentrate my efforts. I'll be folding my Epic Sandwich concept into my regular content schedule here so that I can deliver more on the MN food scene and keep my content fresh. I'm hoping it will be a nice addition and allow me to cover more of our fabulous local eateries, which I'll admit I've been concentrating on less due to a surge in other food related news. I'm hoping to balance things out and let people know about what's going on in our local dining scene and beyond. Stay tuned in the next few days for posts on the Mississippi Market and their awesome "Shopping Co-op on a Budget" course, a Mill City Farmer's Market segment (hopefully highlighted by an elusive tongue taco sighting) and a few notes on a trip to Clancey's Meat and Fish in my beloved Linden Hills. I'll be in touch.

Happy Eating,


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Strip Club

A few buddies and I are planning on hitting the Strip Club in the next few weeks - full review to come. I've wanted to go here for quite a while now (I love a good grass-fed steak!) as I've heard quite a bit of good buzz. I was checking out their site and discovered a really cool film on their landing page. It talks about what is inspiring their spring menu and gives you a good feel for what drives the place. I dig the kitchen footage too. Check it out here. Hopefully more eateries will follow suit, although I'm sure it was no cheap endeavor!

Happy Eating,

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