Welcome back, Food-Friends!

Whew!  Sorry about the sabbatical!  Around the time the last post popped up, both we admins gotta incredibly busy!   We were not too busy to enjoy some great new places, and create some killer dishes.  A few things are going to be taking place in the interim we’d like to share with you, loyal readers:

We finally got around to taking a joke and making it a reality.  A while back, whenever there was a restaurant we were jonesing to try we’d always refer to it as “A Bullet Point”.  I finally got around to making the bullet list and not only will we be trying our best to traipse our way through it, we’ll be posting reviews for your benefit.  (I’ll link to where some of the reviews have already been posted)

SEEDS!  We ordered some seed plants to get a head start on herbal goodness.  The plan is, she will be planting them and raising them in direct sunlight (My house is ridiculously dim) Once they take hold, they’ll be transferred to “the big pots” on my outdoor patio.  This will mark our first attempt at seed growth as opposed to our picking up various herbs etc. at the local Farmers Market.

FITNESS!  We’re training for a 1/2 marathon!  This is a first for both of us, and so we’ll be occasionally sharing recipes that we come across in our training manuals (“What’s that?  You advise eating MORE carbs while long-distance training?  Very well…I accept, sir.” ) and occasionally keeping you in the loop as to our progress.  (ICYC- We’ve been at it for about 3-4 weeks of slowly increasing progress.  She, has gotten past the 8 mile mark and has been cross-training to supplement it.   For my part, I’ve happily topped out at 5 with weekly increases…and weights.  I’m still closer to 200 lbs than I care to be, but hoping to get “leaned” up in time for the June race.)

Oh, don’t worry.  We won’t be turning this into a fitness blog.  But if you are reading here and have any tips or have ran a ‘thon, please comment away!  We welcome the advice/feedback.

That’s all for now.  I’ll be posting the restaurants later this week from our dream “bullet” list, in addition to a new review on a fancy little NE bistro that just opened down the street from us. 

Welcome back, friends!

(ps:  These are links to the Minneapolis Finder Forum.  If you poke around there and find a spot to add your own two cents in any of their forums, please do so!)

(pps: I’m only going to post the last few months worth of reviews.   A “*” will indicate one that we really liked)

Taj Grille- http://forum.minneapolisfinder.com/about11411.html

* Pizza Luce’ Brunch- http://forum.minneapolisfinder.com/about11469.html

Il Gatto- http://forum.minneapolisfinder.com/about11669.html

Shish Brunch- http://forum.minneapolisfinder.com/about11670.html

Pop! Brunch- http://forum.minneapolisfinder.com/about11820.html

* Bar Lagrassa- http://forum.minneapolisfinder.com/about11868.html

*Duplex- http://forum.minneapolisfinder.com/about12210.html

*Amici Bistro- http://forum.minneapolisfinder.com/about12360.html

La Belle Vie

La Belle Vie is consistently rated as one of the nicest, if not the nicest restaurant in Minneapolis.  I’ve long fantasized about dining there, but it’s never been in the budget.  This week, however, is a little something called Restaurant Week.  It’s when some of the nicest restaurants in town offer tasting menus for lunch and dinner at a fixed cost of $15 or $30 per person (depending on the restaurant and the time of day).  La Belle Vie is participating, and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to sample their wares.

We made a reservation for Monday night and got all gussied up.  The Restaurant Week menu was being served only in the Lounge, which was pleasantly populated without being crowded.  We got a comfy table for two near a window, where we could watch the blustery evening agitate the trees.  We took a look at both the Restaurant Week fixed menu, and the A-la-carte options on the regular Lounge menu.  We wanted to get one of the tasting menu series (a tomato compote, black olive tortellini, and braised rib eye) and supplement it with some things from the a-la-carte menu, but our server informed us that wasn’t an option; in order to do one of the tasting menus (there are 3), everyone at the table must choose the same one.  Bummer.

So we decided to go the a-la-carte route.  First, though, we had to choose from among their impressive cocktail list.  I went with the White Lotus, a concoction of gin, cava, a raspberry, and other surprising ingredients I can’t remember (their online cocktail menu doesn’t seem to be up to date).

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Mike got a glorified margarita, with unusual flavors and lots of kick:

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The cocktails were inventive and splashy, but weren’t priced far beyond your standard martini or mojito at any decent TC restaurant, which was nice.  They were fun and creative, but probably not something you’d want to have more than one of (both because of their strength and the quirkiness of the flavor combinations).

For our three a-la-carte choices, we went with the flatbread with porcini mushrooms and carmelized onions, the king crab and artichoke fazzoletti with saffron and dried tomato, and the sautéed sea scallops with carmelized eggplant, asparagus, and prosciutto.  The flatbread came out first:

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Something about this dish didn’t work for me.  The flavors of the mushrooms, onions, and cheese all melded nicely, but the texture of the flatbread itself was rubbery and tough.  We managed to eat the whole thing, but only because we were famished.  This is not something I’d order again.

Next up was the fazzoletti.  Fazzoletti is a thin, flat, paper-like pasta.  This dish was better, but I still felt somewhat disappointed.  It was nice–but I kept hoping for a bite that would make me close my eyes and savor each passing sensation of flavor and texture on my tongue, and that bite never came.

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When you get sampling-sized portions at entree dish prices, you really want each bite to blow you away.  You’re paying for the quality, not the quantity.  There was nothing wrong with this dish–it just left me a little cold.

So we were naturally doubling down on the scallops–this was going to make it or break it.  They came darn close to saving the day.  To be fair, I’ve never met a sea scallop I didn’t like.  And in true sea scallop fashion, this dish was delicious:

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I even forgot my rule about not eating pig and savored the crispy morsels of prosciutto atop the scallops.

As good as the entree was, though, I have to give the overall experience a B-.  Maybe it was all the hype I carried into the meal with me–all the things I’d heard and read about how exquisite this restaurant is.  Maybe it was the fact that we chose a-la-carte dishes instead of the restaurant week tasting menu.  Or maybe it’s just not as amazing as everyone says it is.  When I last ate at a restaurant of similar quality and prestige (D’Amico Cucina, before it closed, RIP), the food literally made me moan.  I was hoping for a similar experience at La Belle Vie and didn’t find it.  But now I know!  I got my fix, fulfilled my fantasy of eating there, and now I can stop gazing at it longingly every time I drive by Hennepin/Lyndale.  And I call that a success.

Reap what you sow

The harvest has begun.  Right now it’s still a trickle, but it will kick into high gear soon enough.  A zucchini or two here, a head of broccoli there, a banana pepper, some zucchini flowers…and the garlic!

This was our first attempt at garlic growing.  I’m proud to say it went off without a hitch, and we’ve now got six beautiful bulbs curing in the garage.  I’ll walk you through the whole process.

Last fall, around October, I ordered some German White Garlic planting stock from thegarlicstore.com.  It was $9.95 plus shipping and handling, and it arrived in a brown paper bag.  It was just three bulbs of garlic.  Why did I have to order them specially instead of just grabbing some bulbs from the grocery store?  Most commercial producers of garlic that ends up in the produce section of the grocery store cover their bulbs in anti-sprouting solutions that inhibit the cloves from doing what they need to do to reproduce themselves into more bulbs (in addition to whatever pesticides and other chemicals they use).  You want a nice, clean, organic, heirloom variety, specifically chosen for your region.  I chose the German White because it was described as loving harsh northern winters.  Done and done.

We didn’t want to plant all 3 bulbs’ worth of garlic, so we used 2 in the kitchen and broke up just one of them for planting.  I figured six plants would be a reasonable start.  After mixing last summer’s compost into the garden’s soil, I separated and peeled six cloves and put them in the garden (pointy side up) around mid-October, gave them some water, mulched the area with leaves raked up from the yard, and let them be.  You want to give them just a bit of a head start to begin sprouting and rooting before the snow and freezing temps set in.  All winter long, I thought about my tender little cloves underground, wondering how they could possibly survive until spring.

But survive they did.  This lovely sight greeted me in the final week of March:

Yes, March!  A full six weeks before I could even begin thinking of planting anything else in the garden, the garlic was already pushing its way toward the sun, out of the still chilly earth.  I kept watering them and cooing to them over the next few months as they grew and grew.  Here they are on June 3rd:

By the 15th of June they had produced scapes:

We had to snip those off to allow the plant’s energy to be diverted back to bulb development, rather than the blossom the scape would have become.  Once the scapes were snipped, the bottom leaves of the plant started to slowly yellow and wither.  All the websites and gardening books I read said that knowing when to harvest your garlic is a sketchy, intuitive knowledge that comes with practice, but the general guideline is that when the bottom 3 or 4 leaves have withered and browned, you’re good to go.  The window for that seems to be mid-July all the way through to mid-August.  Harvest too soon and the bulbs will be under-formed.  Wait too long, and they will start to get mushy and rot through their papers.

So I kept nervously checking the plants every day, watching the progress of the withering leaves, hoping the perfect harvesting moment would make itself clear.  Eventually the suspense got to be too much, and I decided to go for it–I dug one up.  And it was lovely.  The bulb wasn’t humongous, but it was beautifully formed, with slightly wisping outside papers, firmly intact, and smelling like an amazing mixture of pungent garlic and wet, dank earth.  I waited a couple more days, then dug up the rest in a fit of excitement and sensuality and pride.

Next came a kind of tricky part.  Apparently garlic has to be cured for 2-3 weeks to allow it to be stored and gradually used over the rest of the year.  It also gives the bulbs time to draw nutrients and sugars from the rest of the plant.  To cure the garlic, you need to hang it in a darkish (out of direct sunlight) place with good air circulation and shelter from rain.  We didn’t have enough for multiple bundles, so we just got creative with some twine and a couple hangers:

Then hung them in Mike’s garage, where they will dangle for a few weeks:

And there we have it folks.  I can’t wait to try the first aromatic bite of garlic I grew right in the backyard.  And of course we’ll have to set aside one of the bulbs for fall planting, so we can repeat the whole glorious adventure next year.

Hurrah!

Baby veggies and blooming delicacies

The garden is moving right along.  The zucchini plant is now the size of a baby dolphin, and is producing that glorious mid-summer delicacy: the zucchini flower:

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The flowers grow on the ends of the forming fruit and can be twisted right off for use in many different dishes.  I’ve seen them fried, stuffed, used on pizzas, and made into quesadillas.  This weekend we chopped ours up, along with a variety of herbs from the back yard, and threw them in some delicious scrambled eggs:

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Scrumptious!

In other garden news, we harvested the last of the edible spinach this weekend, and then I tore out the plants and threw them in the composter.  They had started to bolt (plant puberty) and they had to go.  The tomato plants are blowing up–one of them is as tall as I am–and the little green nubbins are popping out all over:

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Soon we’ll have five different varieties of tomato gracing our plates: Flamme, Brown Berry, Polish Giant, Ruth’s Perfect, and Delicious.  Mmmm…can’t wait.

We’re actually considering expanding the garden again for next year.  Mike’s yard is so perfect for vegetable gardening–it’s huge and gets lots of direct sunlight–that it seems wasteful not to capitalize on it as much as possible.  We can share our bounty with our families, friends, and neighbors!  And hey, the more space is taken up by the garden, the less lawn Mike has to mow.

One final thing: I want to give a shout out for my current reading material–Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  I’m only a few chapters into it, but I’m loving it.  I’m learning so much about the history of growing and eating food in the U.S., the current state of industrialized food production, and details about individual plants and crops.  It was by reading this book that I learned that my spinach was bolting not because I did something wrong, but because that’s the natural life cycle of the plant.  So I tore out the spinach plants and made room for some other vegetable that thrives in the mid-summer heat.  Since spinach is a cooler weather crop, we can plant some more in late August for a fall harvest if we want to.  Live and learn!  Anyway, I highly recommend the book.  I love Kingsolver’s writing.

And with that, we bid June goodbye and look forward to the remaining 2/3rds of summer.  Hi ho!

The great scape

There it is, folks.  The noble garlic scape.  It’s a culinary delicacy that appears on hardneck garlic plants around mid-June–a light green curlicue, which, left to its own devices, will blossom and divert the plant’s energy from the bulb growing underground.  They have to be snipped off to let the bulb continue to develop.  You’ll see them at farmers markets and co-ops for a couple weeks in late June, because they are actually quite tasty.  Pesto seems to be the most common use for them, if online recipes are any indication.  So far, we’ve used ours in a veggie stirfry and veggie tacos.  They also make beautiful bracelets. 🙂

The garden is slowly but surely growing and ripening.  The sugar snap peas are bursting forth, and I’ve already snacked on several, standing right there in the garden.  The spinach is massive and crying out to be eaten, so we heeded its call this past weekend and made a hearty stirfry (the same one we used the scapes in):

All of that green goodness is straight from the backyard (spinach, curry, scapes, and cilantro).

In other news, it’s time to vote for your favorite farmer’s market!  Go here and cast your vote in this contest by the American Farmland Trust.  They’re hosting the America’s Favorite Farmers Market contest to “raise national awareness about the importance of supporting fresh food from local farms and farmers.”

And that’s something we can all get behind.  Why?  If you need to ask, you need to see this movie: Food, Inc. Here’s the trailer.  It looks awesome, and I hope lots of people see it.

New NE Restaurants

Despite the sickly economy, a batch of new restaurants has sprouted up in Minneapolis recently, several of them in the Nordeast area.  I’ve tried three of them in the past couple weeks: ChinDian, El Taco Riendo, and The Northeast Social Club.

ChinDian is, as you may have guessed from its name, a restaurant dedicated to the fusion of Chinese and Indian cuisines.  It’s small, cute, unassuming, but tastefully decorated with some Asian flavored touches here and there.  We went on a cool evening in late May and the air conditioning was inexplicably blasting.  We actually had to move tables between eating our appetizer and having our entrees delivered, because we right in the icy line of fire.  It’s been a couple of weeks since our visit and they don’t have their menu online, so I can’t remember the exact names of the dishes we got.  We started with a potsticker appetizer (I remember it having chives) with a soy dipping sauce that was pretty tasty.  For our entrees, Mike got a dish with chicken and vegetables sauteed with Indian spices, served with white rice, and I got a noodle dish.  Both were satisfying and unexceptional.  They don’t have a liquor license yet (though they’re working on it), so we couldn’t get any beer or wine with dinner.  My overall impression was that ChinDian might be a good take-out option, but the ambiance of the restaurant itself wouldn’t draw me back.  They did also have a booth set up outside the Casket Arts Building during Art-a-Whirl, and I stopped there for a delicious crepe handmade by Ashley Siegel.  I believe she’s going to start offering them at the restaurant itself sometime soon.  I hope so!  That would definitely bring me back.

El Taco Riendo (“The Laughing Taco”) just opened in the space formerly occupied by Chiapas at Lowry and Central.  It’s right across the street from Adelita’s, our favorite Mexican restaurant in town.  Since going part-time at my day job, I’ve got Fridays off of work.  This past Friday I biked up to the gym for an invigorating yoga class, and on my way back home the hunger bug struck just as I was approaching Lowry and Central on my jaunty bicycle.  It was the perfect time to try El Taco Riendo, as I had heard that they were more like Chipotle than Adelita’s, in the sense that you stand at the counter, order, and watch them make it for you right there.  Perfect for lunch on the go.  I ordered three tacos–two Pollo de Tinga (which were HOT HOT HOT), and one Pollo con Salsa de Tomate (my favorite).  It was just $6.75 for 3 tacos, and I stayed full for hours.  They gave me a punch card–buy five tacos, get one free–and punched out the first three holes.  Next time I go back, I’ll get 3 for the price of 2!  Can’t beat that.  The quality of the food was much closer to Adelita’s than to Chipotle–authentic Mexican ingredients and flavors–it didn’t taste at all like Tex Mexy fast food.  For sit-down dinners, we’ll probably stick with Adelita’s, but when I need something quick but tasty, I’ve got another great option in the neighborhood.

Then there’s the Northeast Social Club.  I’m so excited about this place.  First of all, it’s half a block from my house.  Second of all, they have “social hour” Mon-Sat from 4:00-5:30 with half price bottles of wine, many of which are already reasonably priced.  So that $16 bottle is now $8.  That $20 bottle is now $10.  Yeah.  Awesome.  And they have a charming sidewalk patio on which to enjoy said wine, along with some of their scrumptious food.  When we stopped in the other night, we got the fried okra app (yum), a delicious beet and goat cheese salad, an entree of a baked chicken breast with a side of a white bean-garlic melange, and the rosemary honey pana cotta for dessert.  Everything was exquisitely done, but the dessert sent me into full on rapture mode.  I think I alarmed the older couple at the table next to us with my moans.  It was definitely a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of restaurant moment.  Is it dangerous that this place is a 15 second walk from my front door?  Yes.  But it is also awesome.

So that’s that.  3 new restaurants to add to our rotation of takeout and dining out options in the neighborhood.  Gotta love it.  I wish them all success and longevity!

Watch our garden grow

I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation.  It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses from an Old Manse

Last summer, we decided to try our hand at vegetable gardening.  We dug up a corner of Mike’s lawn, got some dirt from Home Depot and some bricks with which to demarcate the edges, and some baby plants from the Farmers Market.  We threw ’em in the ground, not knowing the first thing about anything, and we watched in delight as our project yielded fresh produce all summer long: jalapenos, banana peppers, broccoli, bell peppers, onions, zucchini, cucumbers, and more tomatoes than we knew what to do with.  The plants grew so big and strong we named the garden Vietnam (you practically needed a machete to get to the center).

We had such success and so much fun, we decided to double the sucker this year.  Most everything has been planted now, and now it’s just a matter of babysitting it until it starts producing its inevitable bounty.

Last night I snapped a few pics of this summer’s humble beginnings:

That’s a sort of half-assed mulch path down the center.  It’s supposed to prevent weeds and provide me with a little walkway.  We’ll see.

In the upper right corner you can see the compost bin.  Our compost is…kind of a disaster.  We religiously withhold our produce scraps to dump in there, along with woody refuse from the yard, but we’re not very diligent about turning it or keeping it wet.  So everything just kind of…sits there.  I’ve heard there’s some mixture you can buy to dump into your composter to get things moving and decomposing.  Does anyone know anything about that?

Check out our garlic plants.  They’re huge!  Can’t wait to harvest those little guys.


And here are our herbs:

I’ve already used the mint in a homemade mojito, the rosemary in some fried breakfast potatoes, the cilantro in veggie wraps, and last night we used some of the thyme, oregano, and basil in our pasta.  Mmmmm.  Is there anything better than fresh herbs?

So there we have it.  I love watching the plants grow from little babies to big veggie-producing monsters.  I never considered myself much of a gardener or a green thumb, or foresaw how much I’d come to love making green things grow.  Life is just full of surprises.