Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dinner and Jayhawks

The Jayhawks, one of my all-time favorite bands that just happens to hail from the Twin Cities, reunited this past weekend for three shows at First Avenue. I couldn't have been more excited to see them, until I heard that Romantica was opening for their Monday night show! Two of my favorites in one night, what could be better? I'll tell you what could be better, taking the next morning off from work to truly enjoy the fun!

To start off an evening of wonderful music, it never hurts to have wonderful food. We chose to eat tapas at Solera, only because I had a gift certificate. We both felt a little reluctant because while Solera is gorgeous, it hasn't really kept up with the times. The decor hasn't changed a bit in many years and, except for the perfect rooftop, people don't talk much about the place anymore. But they should. We chose to eat in the bar where we had four tapas and drinks and enjoyed them with the company of a good bartender who gave us a generous sample of some sherry and a fun size Kit Kat Bar. We ate my absolute favorite thing at Solera, the chorizo-stuffed dates with smoked bacon, and they were as good as ever. We also enjoyed some perfectly grilled asparagus with a thin slice of cured pork loin and a mahon cheese sauce. There was also a required pork belly small plate because pork belly is about as good as it gets, and finally a beautiful octopus ceviche dressed up in a terrine and sliced thinly to resemble stained glass. Everything went very well with my sangria, which is something I could drink every day all summer, but probably shouldn't. For dessert we shared the unbelievably delicate cinnamon-sugar churros (donut sticks) dipped in a thick hot chocolate called champurrado. Big fan here.

After dinner we headed over to First Avenue and met up with Sweet D and her friend Michelle and loved the snot out of Romantica and the Jayhawks. Romantica performed all of their usual songs that I adore, and then the Jayhawks took us back in time, singing tunes I hadn't heard in fifteen years but found I still knew all the words to. There were songs I missed that I wish they had sung, but overall I have no complaints because they performed great, unexpected covers as well as People in This Place on Every Side, the song that sucked me in to the Jayhawks in the first place so many years ago. After the show we had a final beer in the new bar owned by First Avenue just next door called the Depot Tavern, and we loved it. With a large, open garage door that provides airy patio drinking under cover, and a menu that includes Belgian fries that I'm dying to try, the place is the perfect little spot for pre- and post-show gatherings. It's the kind of place, and it was the kind of night, that really makes you appreciate all the beauty and fun that Minneapolis has to offer.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My First Crayfish Boil

I'll never complain about cracking crab legs again. My love for crab knows no bounds, but once in awhile one can tire of the constant work, cracking and pulling and scraping meat from inside the salty red shells. But at least you are occasionally rewarded with large pieces of succulent crab flesh. Not so much with crayfish, but there's still so much to enjoy.

Doug and his friends threw their annual crayfish boil this weekend, using crustaceans from Oregon (I know you were wondering if they were from the Gulf - nope) combined with corn, onions, potatoes, garlic, Andouille sausage and shrimp, and seasoned with Zatarains spices. A giant metal pot of liquid bubbled and foamed and roiled on a propane-fueled fire while the guys dumped pound after pound of live green-gray crayfish into the spicy water, where they quickly turned bright red and shortly thereafter, delicious. When done, the seafood and vegetables were strained out of the broth and turned out onto a newspaper-covered table top in the backyard where someone then liberally powdered the food with a Creole seasoning. Then the hordes descended, grabbing crayfish that looked exactly like tiny lobsters, and twisting the tails from the bodies. They broke the tail shell and extracted the meat, a delicious small chunk of soft meat that mimicked the flavor of crab or lobster. Then folks sucked the innards from the body cavity, at least some of them did, and finally broke off the cute little claws and used their teeth to break the claws in half, where, if they were lucky, a perfectly formed claw of meat broke free for the eating.

Alongside the crayfish were boiled potatoes and hunks of corn on the cob, now seasoned with a tasty, hot Creole spice. The whole garlic heads, cut in half, produced perfectly softened garlic cloves that were easily squeezed from their wet paper and were as mild as a beautifully roasted head of garlic. Perfect eaten with otherwise bland potatoes. But the Andouille sausages really brought the heat to the party. Already hot on their own, now dusted with Creole seasoning, the sausages caught our mouths on fire, producing a heat that wasn't easily quenched, but was still really enjoyable. But the best part of the crayfish boil, beyond the delicious food, was the communal style of the party, where everyone stands around a table messily eating various parts of these sea insects, licking their fingers and laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Big, Wet Thank You!

Last week was a blur of preparations for the MS150, which is my weak explanation for having not posted in seven days. But I really was busy, I swear. You have to plan quite a bit for a rainy weekend of cycling from Duluth to the Twin Cities, considering things like second, dry outfits for after each ride, warm sleeping gear for unseasonably cold June temperatures, and your water bottles. Oh, wait, I forgot that last part. I didn't bring any water bottles. Thankfully, Maria got her hands on a bottle for me, which I promptly lost on day two. I'm cool that way.

Day one started out miserably wet and muddy. Friends Scott and Katie generously shared their pop-up camper with Maria and me (and a few extra friends on Friday night due to the savage weather!) and we woke up to fog as thick as pea soup and a light drizzle. We slogged through the muddy parking lot of a Catholic church in Proctor, Minnesota, where we had set up camp for the night, and got to the start line. As we waited for the okay to take off, we were frightened by the sudden explosion of what we thought was a starter gun, but turned out to be a bike tire right next to us! Bummer of a way for someone to start out the day. While I was concerned about riding in the thick fog, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it made it impossible to see when hills were coming up. Emotionally, I never dreaded a hill for the first hour or so, which was quite a relief. Not long into it, Katie got the first of two flats (the first is pictured above), but thankfully she actually knows how to fix one, unlike me. I carry the spare tube, the tools, and the like, but not the knowledge to do the work. I depend on the kindness of strangers, which may not be my best move.

Moving along throughout the day, it never really rained during the ride, but the combination of the early morning moisture and the sweat generated by my rain jacket, which I call my portable sweat lodge, kept my clothes wet and therefore me cold all day long. Teammate Kelly took a spill four miles out of Finlayson, saving harm to her bike by using her face to brake the fall. She's got quite the facial road rash for her effort. Ouch, I would have quit but she kept going! By the time we reached Hinckley, where it started pouring rain, I was frozen. A delicious hot dog and several brownies, provided by friends of 100 Monkeys, plus a warm shirt and a massage made everything considerably better. Still, I was ready for bed by 9:00pm, though sleep would elude me, replaced by a stupid obsession with having to pee, which meant maybe waking everyone in the camper up and going outside to either pee in the rain or in a well-lit RV park. Neither option was all that great. Why me?

Sunday came early and my quads were burning. But four Advil and a warm pancake can do wonders psychologically as well as physically, and off we went. I was definitely feeling my lack of training this year, feeling exhausted sooner than I should have but not having the cajones to give up. The day was a blur of long stretches of road, potholes, and a disappointing show in the grub department. We've always had hot pizza at about the halfway point on day two and this year not only was there not pizza, all they had left was tortilla wraps lightly filled with tomato, cucumber and spinach. I hate to complain because the volunteers work so hard on this event, but somebody really dropped the ball to run out of protein for lunch by 10:30am. Fortunately, one of our teammates' wives was riding along the route in her car and had a bunch of protein bars that she shared with everyone. With that we powered on to the finish line, with one slight glitch along the way. The final few miles had a few hills that didn't feel so hot after 150 miles, and as we turned the corner at the final half mile, I saw that hill again. Not since the first MS150 I did five years ago had we finished at Century College, and I had forgotten about the nasty hill right before the finish line. As we finished a set of hills, I was losing my will to live, and when I saw that final, giant hill, even though the end was near, I wasn't sure I could do it. Thank god one of my teammates' tires blew! While it would cost us some time, more importantly it would give my tired legs a chance to rest. When we mounted our bikes again, we didn't have much momentum and just for one second during the hill climb I was concerned that I'd have to stop and walk it, which would be terribly embarrassing, but I poured it on (definitely not in speed, but in muscle) and crossed the finish line, never more glad to be done. Well, probably just as glad to be done as each of the five years, actually. Doug was at the finish line, ready with towels in case I was wet, a blanket in case I was cold, and an ice cold can of Coca-Cola. Suddenly, everything was better.

I can't thank everyone enough who supported me, both financially and emotionally, sometimes it was just knowing that folks had been so generous that kept me going. Seriously, those were the sorts of thoughts I had to evoke in order to forge ahead at times. So thank you for supporting the MS Society. They are a great organization doing great things for great people. Like you.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


There's a little storefront gem not far from here in the University of Minnesota neighborhood that serves up some tasty Japanese vittles that you might like to try. Obento-Ya is located at the corner of 15th Avenue SE and Como, very near Van Cleve Park, and you'll be surprised when you walk into the place, nestled between some nondescript storefronts and across the street from an actual old-fashioned hardware store and a Crescent Moon pizza shop that I didn't know existed. I know about the Northeast Crescent Moon, but it looks like they may have branched out, which is neat.

Obento-Ya is small, but uses its space well to fit in a good amount of diners without feeling crowded, and I just learned they have an outdoor patio in the back as well. Their large menu showcases a number of sushi options as well as tempura, bento boxes, noodles and plenty of small plates, hot and cold. Last night there I met my new favorite food in the world, a Japanese small plate that is apparently eaten often in the streets of Tokyo after bar close. No wonder, so easy to eat and bursting with different flavors. Okonomiyaki, as prepared at Obento-Ya, is a pan-fried batter cake (I sensed lots of egg, which I loved) with ginger, cabbage, scallions, bacon and asparagus. It's like a thick, crispy-edged pancake sprinkled with dried bonito flakes (flakes of dried, smoked bonito fish), Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise and some sort of teriyaki sauce. All the tastes and textures come together and explode in the mouth in a symphony of flavor that I wouldn't mind experiencing every single day of my life. Health-wise, that may not be my best option, but happiness-wise, it is. Besides the okonomiyaki, we had the ginger pork ramen special, a large bowl of good quality ramen noodles in a spicy broth with generous bites of perfectly cooked pork and vegetables. We also shared a sushi bento box, which last night was just okay, but sometimes is very, very good. The best part, and this is weird for me to say because of my staunch anti-soup stand, was the simple miso soup starter, with tender cubes of tofu and minced scallion bobbing along the steaming surface. I'm no expert at Japanese food, but I like to think I know what tastes good, and Obento-Ya tastes good. Go try the okonomiyaki and try to deny its tremendous power over you.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

My 15 Minutes

My job, by definition, is very much on the administrative side of things. But once in a while the fine people at the agency throw me a bone and allow me to flex my creative muscles. Based on my very public declaration of the burning love for nachos I possess, a coworker recently asked me if I would come up with some ideas for different ways to serve up nachos. A client has a product that allows consumers to build a simple plate of nachos on the go, an easy item to bring to a party for folks who don't so much enjoy cooking or don't have time. I did some brainstorming and came up with about ten ideas for easy additions to a basic plate of nachos that would make them a little bit special. I never expected my work to go anywhere, so imagine my surprise when I heard the client had a tasting of several of my ideas and chose their favorite four, which are now published on the back of the product and sold at grocery stores around the country! I doubt Tom Colicchio will be inviting me to compete or judge on Top Chef anytime soon, these are extremely simple little "recipes," but I'm excited nonetheless. I'm finally published! Next up, Mastering the Art of Nacho Cooking...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Portuguese Chicken, How Do I Love Thee?

I wish I could explain my love for chicken. So many people consider it sort of a throw-away protein, bland, boring, white. But I find it exciting and mysterious and lovely. It takes on such an assortment of flavors without getting in the way of them. It accepts them in with the love of a mother and disperses them with the generosity of a Mother Theresa.

I've written before of swooning before the rotisserie chicken joints in Mexico City, but I wasn't prepared for something even better than that ever could have been. Nothing could have prepared me for this. In Chicago this weekend, Doug's friend Paul served up this magical chicken prepared with a Portuguese marinade that would have converted even the most staunch Foghorn Leghorn hater. Nobody could have resisted it. I asked Paul how he prepared it and he said it like it was all simple and stuff, that he got his organic chickens from a small farm in Michigan, butterflied them, then marinated them for two days in Portuguese spices, lemon and olive oil. Then he explained that he was going to "burn the shit out of them" on the grill. I wish I had taken an "after" photo, but my fingers were too constantly messy with Portuguese spices after the chicken cooked to take any more pictures. The chickens were cooked perfectly, with blackened skin and spices that broke off crisply into my mouth and then melted quickly, like butter in a sizzling hot pan. I couldn't have been happier the next morning when there was leftover cold chicken in the fridge to eat before hitting the road. I will never forget you, Portuguese chicken.

According to Paul's wife, Mary, this very chicken is occasionally on the menu at one of Paul's restaurants, The Publican. Even if this chicken isn't available, you'll find something else to love. Next time you're in Chicago, go.