Football Food: Part 1

Those that know me well know that I am a huge football fan. And I’m loyal to my home state and the Minnesota Vikings, no matter how heartbreaking of a team they can be! Football season is one of the reasons I love fall. That and the beautiful colors from the changing leaves, and the craving for hearty comfort food. Football Sundays are the perfect excuse to indulge once a week! I’m going to highlight the football food we enjoyed for the first four weeks of this season. The middle of the season has been busy with weddings, traveling and house hunting. That and the fact that it’s been a terrible season for the Vikings has taken my focus away from football a little bit. But now that we are into November, it’s time to refocus! I plan to do a second post towards the end of the season with more football food ideas. In the meantime, here are weeks 1-4:

Week 1

The first week was a fabulous week for the Vikings! At the beginning of the season, people had high hopes for the Rams and low hopes for the Vikings, so when we beat the Rams on the road, it was very exciting to watch.

There is no better drink for football in my opinion (outside of beer) than a bloody mary. And when I make them, they are pretty much an appetizer and drink rolled into one. I love the fixings that go along with the drink! We enjoyed celery, bacon and a skewer of salami, cheese, pickles and olives. I think of it as an antipasti bloody mary and it’s a true combination of Italian and Midwestern!

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Next I made baked jalapeno poppers. I stuffed the peppers with a mixture of cream cheese and shredded pepper-jack. I then rolled the stuffed peppers in flour, then eggs, then breadcrumbs. I put them on a foil-lined baking sheet and baked them at 350 for about 30 minutes. They turned out beautifully crispy and gooey in the center. It was my first time attempting to make these at home and I can say they were a hit!

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Lastly, we enjoyed a true Minnesota staple: cream of chicken and wild rice soup. This is probably a dish that I will make my own recipe for and post on the blog one day, but this time we had been given frozen, homemade soup from my mom. So we simply reheated and enjoyed her home-cooking. It is one of my absolute favorite soups and is so creamy and comforting!

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Week 2

We went into week two cautiously optimistic. It was our home-opener against the New England Patriots. The Patriots really didn’t look very good in week 1, so we were hopeful we might actually have a chance of beating them. That hope didn’t last long as they beat us 30-7.

We enjoyed this week of football (in spite of the loss) up at Joe’s parents’ cabin near Ely, MN. I was going back to work a couple weeks later, so we decided to enjoy a long weekend at the cabin while we still had such a flexible schedule. When I ask Joe what his idea of football food is, he always answers with chili. So I made chili. I didn’t do anything earth-shattering here. I just chopped an onion and a red bell pepper and sauteed them while browning some beef. I then added canned tomatoes, canned beans and a packet of chili seasoning and then let it simmer so all of the flavors combined. It was extremely easy and turned out very delicious.

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One of my favorite football foods is queso. I decided to make a homemade version that combines evaporated milk with shredded cheese that is tossed with cornstarch. I added a couple cans of drained Rotel and let it simmer until thick. The queso was delicious with chips….

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…and we discovered it was delicious on top of the chili!

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Week 3

The third week brought a loss from the Saints. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t even very fun to watch. But, Joe & I had fun stopping off at a restaurant along the road on our trip back from a weekend at a cabin up north with friends. The restaurant we chose was Rough-Cut Grill & Bar in Milaca, MN.

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We wanted good football food, but didn’t want to be stuffed, so we decided to split an appetizer and a burger. Little did we know, the appetizer we ordered was enormous! It was fabulous football food. The appetizer was called Smokin’ Pork Fries and was a bed of french fries covered in pulled pork, chipotle barbecue sauce and ranch. Although certainly heavy, the fries were extremely delicious!

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After packing up 75% of the Smokin’ Pork Fries to go, Joe and I split the mushroom and swiss burger. The burger was juicy and flavorful and was served on a tender ciabatta bun. It was a very good meal and I highly recommend stopping at Rough-Cut if you ever find yourself driving on highway 169 in central Minnesota!

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Week 4

We got a glimmer of hope in the fourth week when we beat the Falcons 41-28. Unlike the couple weeks before, this was a fun game to watch. In addition to that actual food I like to enjoy while watching football, I love the company of other Vikings fans. This week I invited my immediate family over to enjoy the game and some food. I decided to have everyone bring some appetizers and I would supply a main dish.

The main dish I decided to make was Amy Thielen’s Booya-Pozole from her cookbook “The New Midwestern Table.” I always seem to make a couple modifications to a recipe these days, partly to simplify the process based on the ingredients I have available to me, and partly to put my own touch on a recipe. The main modifications I made this time was that I only used pork (the recipe calls for pork and chicken) and I smoked the pork on my Big Green Egg before adding it to the stew.

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The smoked pork added a wonderfully smoky flavor to the broth. The other main modification I made to the recipe was that I pureed part of the broth with only the vegetables in it to make it a bit of a smoother/creamier soup. But this recipe is truly wonderful as it is. It takes some time to prepare, but it is so hearty and wonderful, it is well worth the effort. And I always make a huge pot and freeze some to enjoy later in the winter.

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The spread my family brought was great. It ranged from guacamole to sushi to a sweet pumpkin dip for apples and gingersnaps. I had so much fun enjoying a Vikings win with my family!

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Up North

When people hear that we spent three months in Italy and that I love to cook, they assume that I find the food in Minnesota a let down. That’s not true at all! I love finding great regional food and this summer, I had a lot of fun discovering some great dishes on our trips up to my in-laws’ lake cabin near the Canadian border. Here I am highlighting just a few of my favorites up north:

The Boathouse in Ely, MN

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The Boathouse is a great place to find some craft beers (something I love in the US, but were hard to find in Italy). It also has a great rustic Minnesota feel with wood finishing and deer on the walls.

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If you can’t decide which beer you’d like to try, you can get a flight. I personally love getting a flight because I love variety, but don’t need the volume. So it’s a great way to get four small, different beers. If there is one beer I would say is a must try, it’s their blueberry blonde. I’m not generally fond of fruity beers (or blonde ales, for that matter), but this one is so good. I have it every summer. It is also fun to watch the blueberries float and sink in the beer (they constantly move around).

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They also have great food. My favorite starter is the gunboats. They are jalapeno peppers stuffed with a wild rice cream cheese mixture and topped with crumbled sausage. They are like a lighter jalapeno popper and are really delicious. They also have duck wings on the menu, which I unfortunately don’t have a picture of, but are another great and unique option.

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Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse in Knife River, MN

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Stopping at Russ Kendall’s on our way back from the cabin became a new tradition this summer. I have no doubt we will continue to do this at least once a summer from this point on. They have roughly eight different kinds of smoked fish including several varieties of salmon, whitefish and lake trout.

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They also sell tubs of cheese spread (we always get swiss almond which I think goes best with the smoked fish) and crackers. A cracker, some cheese and a piece of smoked fish makes an amazing snack. We bring the fish home and enjoy it for days. There are no doubt more creative things a person could do with this fish, but I like the cracker snacks so much I haven’t even bothered trying anything else.

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Rockwood in Ely, MN

A trip up north would not be complete without walleye. Rockwood is great because they take traditional Minnesota ingredients like walleye and duck and work them into dishes from other regions or countries. One example not pictured is walleye rangoon, a play on crab rangoon. On our last trip to Rockwood, we tried their walleye cakes with wild rice and they were delicious!

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We also tried the poutine with chopped duck breast. Duck is probably my favorite meat. This and the duck wings at Boathouse are the least formal presentations of duck I’ve ever eaten. But they are fantastic! Obviously this is a heavy dish, but it was was delicious and the duck made it even more decadent.

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Haute Dish Review

My friend Marah was in town for business, so it gave me the opportunity to go into Minneapolis for a great “foodie” dinner! I used to have foodie dinners in Chicago on a regular basis and obviously had amazing meals in Italy all the time. Since we have moved back to Minnesota, I have yet to get out for a unique and amazing meal. Marah and I both love to cook and we appreciate both regional home-cooking as well as chef-prepared “foodie” dinners. I decided Haute Dish was the perfect restaurant to try. The name is a play on the Minnesota comfort food of hotdish and the menu seemed to take both aspects of the food we love and combine them. I had been wanting to try this restaurant for awhile and when I explained the concept to Marah, she loved it.

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The restaurant only offers a few tasting menus, so we decided to try two of the smaller tastings and split them. The first was the “HD Classic” and consisted of three courses: house salad, mac n cheese and tater tot hautedish. The other was “Meatless Monday” and consisted of four courses: green goddess salad, fried green tomato, green eggs and parm, and “choose your own adventure” for dessert. It was quite dim in the restaurant and I only had my iPhone for a camera, so I admit these are not the greatest pictures of the food. But I feel they are enough to capture the idea of what we enjoyed.

The first course of the HD Classic menu was “house salad.” It was a wedge of iceberg topped with bacon, blue cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers and served with french and ranch dressing. I absolutely love that this is the traditional midwestern salad I have grown up with, but obviously elevated. The presentation was beautiful, all of the components were very fresh and delicious and the ranch tasted of fresh herbs. It was a great start to the meal.

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The second salad was the green goddess salad.  It was bibb lettuce served with a green goddess dressing topped with toasted peanuts, cheese stuffed peppadew peppers and green olives.  The flavors were bright and I absolutely love cheese stuffed peppers (I have my own recipe on this site under antipasti or at http://italianmidwestern.com/recipes/antipasto/stuffed-cherry-peppers/).  This salad was very enjoyable, but not quite as outstanding as the house salad.

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Our second courses were the best courses overall. For the classic menu, we were served macaroni and cheese with crab meat that had an extremely creamy cheese sauce that included tallegio cheese, one of my favorites that I ate a LOT while in Italy! It was topped with tobiko (flying fish roe), fresh parsley and celery leaves. This was so decadent and amazing. It is a very good thing this course was portion controlled, because I would have had a very hard time stopping myself if I was presented with a much larger plate-full!

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The meatless Monday menu’s second course was fried green tomatoes. These were served with a fingerling puree and a roasted tomatillo chimichurri.  The tomatoes were perfectly fried to a tender, but firm texture with a crispy outer coating.  The fingerling puree added richness and the chimichurri brought a brightness that cut through the heaviness of the dish.  It was so delicious!

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I have to say we didn’t love the main courses. We certainly didn’t hate them either, but we were not blown away by these dishes. The classic menu’s tater tot hautedish was my most anticipated dish of the night. This was a deconstructed version of the traditional Minnesota dish. It was braised beef, homemade tater tots (which had the consistency of mashed potatoes that were formed into a tater tot shape and then fried), green beans, mushrooms, gravy and jus from the beef. Then the dish was topped with a little cheese. Overall this dish was very good, it was just over-salted. I think the braised beef and the jus were the culprits. My guess is the sauce over-thickened and the saltiness became too intense. If the saltiness were better balanced, this dish would have been excellent!

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The main course for the meatless Monday menu was green eggs and parm. This was my least favorite dish of the meal. It was a parmesan steak, for lack of a better term, served with an heirloom tomato sauce, a fried egg, and a fennel garnish. I like the idea of what they tried to do with the parmesan, but I didn’t love the texture of the “steak”. And unfortunately none of the other components of the dish wowed me either.

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To finish the meal, we split a dessert. We chose the cheesecake that was topped with a brittle and served with a bourbon caramel sauce. This dessert was excellent and plenty to share! It was a great mix of textures and was decadent, but not overly sweet. It was a fabulous end to the meal.

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Overall, I loved our dinner at Hautedish and continue to love the concept of this restaurant! This was the perfect choice for my first “foodie” dinner out since our return to Minneapolis.

Thank You Dinner

If you are a close friend or family member of mine and you offer me help in a time of need, there’s a good chance your thank you will come in the form of food. My soon-to-be sister-in-law Lindsay loaned me her car for four days so that Emily and I weren’t without a car while Joe made a trip to Chicago to tend to our condo. Joe didn’t get home until late on the evening that Lindsay needed her car back, so my brother drove her up to get it on a Tuesday after work. Since they were coming at dinner time, I figured cooking them dinner would be a great way to say thank you and to hopefully make the trip up to our place feel a little more worth-while.

Although I’m excited to get back to work, I admit I will miss having the opportunity to cook a meal like this on a Tuesday night. As an antipasti, I made stuffed cherry peppers. These were inspired by the stuffed peppers I used to buy at Pastoral in the French Market in Chicago. I found a jar of sweet and spicy cherry peppers at Trader Joe’s and knew I had to make up a recipe of my own. I mixed goat cheese, ricotta, a mix of fresh herbs and lemon juice and stuffed the peppers. They turned out sweet, spicy, creamy and delicious! The recipe can be found under the recipe section of this blog, or at the below link:

http://italianmidwestern.com/recipes/antipasto/stuffed-cherry-peppers/

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For the primi piatti, I made a tomato and corn custard pie. I found this recipe in the September 2014 issue of the Food Network Magazine. To be honest, I used needing to thank Lindsay for using her car as an excuse to make this pie. It was SO GOOD. I bought fresh sweet corn and an amazing (and huge) tomato from a local farm stand. The quality of corn and tomatoes used makes all the difference in this recipe and it is certainly no coincidence this recipe was in the September issue of this magazine since this is the best time of year for corn and tomatoes. I will likely find a reason to make this pie at the end of every summer. It was so creamy and decadent but also really highlighted the flavors of the corn and tomatoes. It was so good!

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Lastly, I served my own version of tagliata di manza (strips of beef) as the secondi piatti. I fired up the big green egg and grilled a flank steak that I had marinaded in olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped rosemary. I served it as we experienced in Italy, with an arugula salad, shaved parmesan and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Such a simple and delicious dish!

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MN State Fair

I am so excited to be a resident of Minnesota again during the state fair! I have certainly made trips back for it during the 9 years I lived in Chicago, but there’s just something about living here and hearing the constant buzz about the fair on radio and TV stations. It’s hard to have a conversation with anyone during this time where the fair does not come up in some way. And it was Emily’s first state fair ever! We had so much fun.

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There is certainly more to do than just eat at the MN state fair. We saw a ton of animals, which Emily LOVED. She and Joe also road the giant slide, which she didn’t love. But sights, rides, and shopping aside, the food always steals the show. We were lucky to be able to go to the fair with two good friends and their toddler, so Emily had company and we had more people to share food with. This is my #1 strategy if visiting the state fair: go with as big of a group as possible so you can try a larger variety of food! Obviously the group should consist of people you feel comfortable sharing food with.

The very first thing we got was corn. It is one of the few items at the fair that is not deep fried, but they make up for it by dunking the entire ear of corn in a huge vat of melted butter. It is truly perfection and a fair staple that we get every time we visit the fair.

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The next stop was a spontaneous decision by me and was something I have never tried. But I don’t know if you can possibly get more Minnesotan that hotdish on a stick from Ole & Lena’s stand. I decided to give it a try.

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Ole and Lena did a take on tater tot hot dish by skewering meatballs and tater tots on a stick, dipping it in what tasted like corn dog batter, frying it, and serving it with a side of sausage gravy. I would recommend this dish to someone who likes the idea of corn dogs (or pronto pups as they are called at the fair), but isn’t a big fan of hot dogs. I really love the idea of this one and it was tasty, but not outstanding. The meatball bites were delicious, but the tater tot bites were just mushy and heavy. I think corn dog batter needs meat to stand up to it.

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Next we made our way to a new part of the fair, the West End Market. I had seen and heard a lot of buzz about the Blue Barn, which seemed to be doing some interesting “foodie” state fair food, so I had to check it out.

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First we tried chicken in a waffle cone. This was the dish I was most excited to try and I really wanted to love it. I wish I could say I did love it, but I would say it was just good. It was basically small pieces of fried, boneless chicken with a spicy coating, covered in sausage gravy, served in a waffle cone. The presentation was very clever, but the issue with serving it this way is that it was difficult to get a true bite of the whole dish, so it didn’t really come together for me. I would just eat a bite of spicy chicken with gravy and then an occasional bite of waffle cone. I also think I would have chosen a different sauce for the chicken such as a maple syrup-based sweet sauce to offset the spiciness of the chicken. The gravy got kind of lost in the dish. Hopefully they will build off of this year’s experience and improve the dish for next year.

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The other dish we had at the Blue Barn was my favorite of all the new food we tried this year. And I plan to get it again next year if it returns: blue cheese corn fritters. The blue cheese was quite mild and the corn was really sweet. Not only did the adults love this dish, but the toddlers did too! The fritters were served with a chimichurri sauce that was bright and fresh and cut through the the heaviness of the fritter. And although I did like the chimichurri sauce, I also thought they could have taken this dish one step further from an indulgent perspective (since it’s the fair and we’re not here to eat light) and make some sort of a creamy blue cheese dipping sauce to drive home that flavor. Maybe next year they could serve the dish with two sauces and let the consumer decide which route they would like to go.

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While at the Blue Barn, I heard several people talking about the West End Creamery. It was a sunny day and it was starting to get a little warm, so we decided it was a good time for the kids to get some ice cream.

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We decided to try another new food item to the fair this year, the hot waffle ice cream sandwich. They literally wait until you are at the counter ready to pick up your sandwich before they toast the waffle so that you’re sure to get a hot waffle, but not a melty mess. This was another dish that I really wanted to love, but it was just missing something. I actually think it was missing a bit of salt. The ice cream was good and the waffle was okay, but the whole dish just tasted really plain. If there was a way to incorporate some chocolate or caramel with a bit of sea salt, that would have made the dish unbelievable. But Emily loves ice cream in any form, so this wasn’t a complete miss.

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By this point it was the afternoon, and the adults were ready for a drink. We went in search of the last state fair item I had heard of but hadn’t tried that I really wanted to find this year: mini donut beer. I definitely wasn’t sure if I would like it, but knew I had to give it a try.

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To drive home the mini donut flavor of the beer, they rim the glass with cinnamon sugar. This beer was quite enjoyable! It had a mild, malty flavor and the cinnamon sugar was strangely addicting. Although I wouldn’t necessarily choose to drink this beer on a regular basis, it did a great job of capturing the essence of the state fair in a glass. And honestly, I kind of wish we would have gotten mini donuts with it to dunk in the beer. I’m guessing it would have been amazing. Maybe next year.

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Our next stop was the perfect beverage for Emily to enjoy: milk. And I will state right now that the best way to visit the milk stand at the MN state fair is with a bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies. I’m sad to say that we didn’t get any cookies this year. I really didn’t want to bring any of the state fair home with us (it’s such an indulgent day, I don’t like the indulgence to carry over into my every day life) and even the cone of cookies is so huge. And I can’t bring myself to throw away what we don’t eat because they are so good. But Sweet Martha’s cookies with the all you can drink milk is a state fair staple for sure. This year we just got the glass of milk for Emily.

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To end the day, we found a table in the Garden and enjoyed some live karaoke. We decided we had room for one more snack to share before we headed home. So we got cheese curds! These are the best cheese curds I have ever had. And they are consistent every year. If I were recommending food to a person who was attending the fair for the first time, the three things I think a person has to try are the cheese curds, roasted corn and Sweet Martha’s cookies. That sums up the Minnesota state fair to me.

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It was such a fun day and an event I look forward to every year. And it was so much fun this year seeing Emily experience it for the first time! She absolutely loved the animals, had fun playing on the tractors, and was enchanted by everything there was to see around her. And she enjoyed some good food as well!

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