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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Bachelorette Party Cooking Class

Last weekend I was lucky enough to take my first cooking class in Minneapolis! The class was a part of the bachelorette party festivities for my future sister-in-law, Lindsay. It was so much fun! There was a group of about 15 of us and we took a private class at Cooks of Crocus Hill in Edina.

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We were divided into groups of 3-4 people and assigned to one of four stations. Although I didn’t necessarily learn anything ground-breaking in this class, I walked away with four delicious new recipes and had a great time! Cooks of Crocus Hill did a great job setting up the event for a fun social occasion and accounting for a group of people with varying levels of cooking experience.

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I was assigned to the salad station. We made a delicious arugula, tomato, watermelon and feta salad dressed with a serrano chile vinaigrette. If you’ve never tried watermelon and feta together, it is a fabulous combination. This is such a great summer salad!

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Another station was in charge of pancetta-wrapped asparagus with a lemon citronette. It was simple, but delicious! The sauce really made the dish pop with flavor.

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The third savory dish was crispy shrimp rolls with a mango sauce. The shrimp were wrapped in wonton wrappers and then deep-fried. They were so meaty and turned out perfectly cooked when fried this way. And the sauce was sweet and a little spicy which is a combination of flavors that I love!

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For dessert, we had bourbon nectarines with pound cake croutons. Not being much of a baker, this is a dessert recipe that I will absolutely make again! The pound cake croutons were incredible as they soaked up the bourbon sauce from the nectarines and the whipped cream. And again, it’s a perfect summer dish using fruit that is in season (this would be just as incredible with an assortment of berries, plums, strawberries, or any fruit of choice that’s in season).

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The cooking facility at Cooks of Crocus Hill was beautiful and I look forward to taking more classes here in the future!

Top 5 Gelaterias in Florence, Italy

I tried a lot of gelato from countless gelaterias during our 88-day stay in Florence. It was a tough job, but I was happy to do it. Recognizing not everyone gets that much time to explore the gelato scene in Florence, I figured people might appreciate a list of the best gelaterias, according to my opinion. Disclaimer: I haven’t been to every single gelateria in Florence, so I can’t claim this to be a completely exclusive list. Having said that, I’ve been to many underwhelming gelaterias in Florence which are easier to find than the impressive places, so I hope this helps steer people in the right direction. And I went to each of these gelaterias more than once, so I know I didn’t just luck out with a one-off positive experience. This list aside, if you’d like tips on picking a quality gelateria, see the post for Florence: Day 56. Enjoy!

1) Gelateria Vivaldi – Via dei Renai 15

Flavors pictured: pistachio and chocolate chip with pieces of candied orange (and a watermelon granita)

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2) Gelateria della Passera – Piazza della Passera 15

Flavors pictured: cioccolato e arancia (chocolate and orange) and Zabaione (egg yolks, sugar and marsala wine)

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3) Cantina del Gelato – Via de Bardi 33

I foolishly don’t have any pictures of their gelato, but I will never forget the whiskey cinnamon flavor. It was so good I had it twice.

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4) Edoardo – Piazza del Duomo 45R

Flavors pictured: moscato and peach sorbettas

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5) Gelateria il Magnifico – Piazza della libertà 29R

Flavors pictured: ricotta e pera (ricotta and pear) and biscottini

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Minneapolis Food Truck Festival

On June 29, we headed to Uptown in Minneapolis to join my brother and his fiance (Kyle & Lindsay) at the Minneapolis Food Truck Festival. It was a beautiful day to walk around and try a variety of food and we had such a great time! Luckily the whole group wanted to try a bit of everything, so we all operated on the same strategy: we decided what to get as a group and split it all four ways (well, four and a half with Emily).

Our first stop is probably one of the best known food trucks in Minnapolis, Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen. My expectations were high for this truck with all of the hype around it and I can say, it did not disappoint! We ordered the special that they were making for the festival which was a crispy smoked meat sandwich with maple hot sauce and vinegar slaw. There was such an amazing combination of flavors going on (spicy, smoky, sweet) combined with a variety of textures (soft bun, chewy meat, crunchy slaw). It was so good! And we washed down the sandwich with a Jamaican hibiscus punch. This was most people’s favorite dish of the day (my second favorite).

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Next, we stopped at the Tollefson truck for a midwestern staple that Joe and I were both craving after being in Italy for three months: a brat! Joe took the lead on this dish and topped it with ketchup and raw onions. There was nothing terribly unique about the brat, but it was delicious and exactly the back-home comfort food Joe and I were craving.

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Our third stop caught our eye because they were serving arepas, a kind of cornmeal flatbread/cake that originated in South America. Kyle and Lindsay’s favorite Minneapolis food truck Hola Arepa specializes in these, but was not at the festival. So we decided to try this truck, which was called Cafe Racer, to compare. We ordered the balsamic vegetable arepa with a side of rice. The vegetables were delicious, the arepa was a bit tougher than I like and the rice was not very notable. This was probably everyone’s least favorite dish of the day. But it was nice to have a few vegetables worked into the mix.

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Our fourth stop wasn’t an actual food truck, it was a tent that was put up by a cookware store/cooking school located on the street of the festival called Kitchen Window. They had three massive paella pans working to cook a variety of meat, seafood, vegetables and rice and it was just too tempting to pass up. This paella was incredible! It was packed with flavor, the seafood was tender, the rice was perfectly al dente. This was my favorite dish of the day!

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Last but not least, we tried the Anchor Fish & Chips truck. And we ordered the namesake fish and chips. The piece of fish they served us was HUGE. It was so big (and we were all getting pretty full at this point) that we couldn’t quite finish it. The fish was so tender and juicy with a delicious crispy coating. The fries were okay, but nothing outstanding. But the fish made up for the fries.

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Joe and I really enjoyed getting back into a city, and it was such a fun afternoon sampling a variety of food with family in such a fun setting!

“Welcome Home” Family BBQ

A few days after we returned to the states, my mom hosted a “welcome home” family BBQ. She provided ribs which we cooked on my Big Green Egg (which I am so excited to be able to start using on a regular basis!). And then each of my siblings and I were in charge of bringing a side dish to share.

My mom did specifically request from me a dish that was inspired by our time in Italy. I decided to put together an antipasto platter for everyone to snack on for an appetizer. I included olives, cheese, grilled zucchini (which took on an amazing smoky flavor from the Big Green Egg), a carrot and zucchini frittata, melon and prosciutto, and roasted red peppers.

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I also bought some multi-colored heirloom tomatoes which I tossed with some chopped shallots, torn basil, and Tuscan olive oil for a quick bruschetta topping.

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The ribs turned out beautifully smoked, and were juicy and delicious!

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The ribs were accompanied by a couple pasta salads, a lettuce salad and cornbread muffins.  It was a fabulous spread and a delicious way to be welcomed home to the US, combining some Italian and some American food favorites!

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Florence: Day 87

I squeezed in a tenth cooking class during the morning of our last full day in Florence. It felt appropriate to go back to Giglio Cooking to learn a little more from Marcella before heading home. The focus of today’s class was vegetables and we started out with one of my new favorites – fiore di zucchini friti (fried zucchini flowers)! IMG_1034 These turned out so wonderfully. They were crispy and decadent but still light and fresh. I never had stuffed zucchini flowers here in Italy, but I think a just a touch of a ricotta, goat cheese and herb filling would be absolutely incredible. IMG_1036 Next we made a couple of dips. Marcella commented that dips are not at all an Italian thing to eat. But with the increasing popularity of aperitivo buffets at bars where they provide such a huge spread of food, dips are slowly starting to catch on in Italy. So she came up with two recipes highlighting vegetables. First, we made salsa di avocado which was like an Italian guacamole.  The ingredients were just avocado, garlic, ricotta and yogurt seasoned with salt, pepper, and tobasco.  It was so creamy and delicious, but full of nutrition as well!IMG_1038 Next we made crema di melanzana which was an eggplant dip, like an Italian baba ganoush.  This one was even simpler than the avocado dip.  The ingredients were just eggplant (which we roasted, removed the skin and pureed), garlic, olive oil and a touch of mint.  Mint never sounds great to me in savory recipes, but when I finally try them they are always delicious.  And this recipe was no exception.IMG_1039Next we made two pasta dishes.  The first was farfalle con pesto e ricotta.  Marcella called this a pasta per bambinas, or pasta for babies.  This can be made with any shape pasta and the sauce is simply ricotta cheese that is slightly thinned with some pasta water and combined with any vegetable of choice.  For this class, we decided we wanted to try it with pesto, so we picked basil out of Marcella’s garden and made pesto.  Her tip for great pesto using a blender was to start by making a paste with the garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and parmegiano reggiano cheese.  The key is to not pick the basil until the paste is made because the basil starts oxidizing the moment it is picked.  So you will get a brighter green color if you wait to pick the basil until the moment you need it.  We then simply added the basil, a little more olive oil to the consistency we wanted and blended it just enough to combine the ingredients.  It was beautiful!  And combining the pesto with the ricotta mixture made the flavor a bit milder and creamier.  It was really delicious.IMG_1041

The next pasta dish we made seems extremely simple, but is actually very difficult to execute correctly.  The dish was spaghetti aglio e olio, or spaghetti with garlic and olive oil.  The trick is to not overcook the garlic or the pasta.  Timing is everything with this dish.  You start by boiling the spaghetti and when almost done, you heat chopped garlic and chili flakes in a generous amount of a high quality extra virgin olive oil.  Drain the pasta and once the garlic is floating in the oil (but not browned), toss in a large bowl with the pasta.  Top with chopped parsley and grated pecorino romano cheese.  This dish is so simple, yet so incredible!IMG_1043

The last dish we made was a real show-stopper.  It was a tortino di carciofi, or artichoke tortino.  There’s no real english translation for tortino.  It is somewhere between a souffle and a flan.  We cleaned, cooked and pureed several artichokes and a few porcini mushrooms with garlic and parsley.  This is then mixed with parmigiano reggiano cheese and egg yolks.  Whipped egg whites are then folded in and the tortinos are baked in ramekins sitting in a water bath.  We served these over a mornay sauce made with butter, flour, milk and shredded cheese (we used a combination of fresh pecorino and parmigiano-reggiano).  It was then garnished with a parmegiano-reggiano chip.  This dish was rich, decadent and delicious!IMG_1045

Although I wasn’t terribly hungry for dinner after my multi-course lunch, Joe had the great idea to eat at the pizzeria La Delizie for our last meal in Florence and order the exact dishes we ordered for our first meal (see Florence: Day 1).  We paired the porcini mushroom soup and tomato and sausage pizza with a small bottle of Chianti and again, the food was delicious.  It was the perfect ending to our trip!  Our time spent in Italy was so incredible, it is hard to put into words.  Unfortunately Emily won’t remember the experience, but Joe and I will never forget it.  And I’m so thankful for the technology available to us today so that we have so many ways to capture the experience and share with Emily again when she is older.  Viva Italia!IMG_0976 IMG_1047 IMG_1048

Florence: Day 86

Today we continued our farewell tour to our favorite places in Florence. First, we went to the seafood stand in the Mercato Centrale for a plate of fried cod and calamari with white wine. It was incredible as always!

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Note: wine costs the same as water and less than Coke!

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Later in the afternoon, we made our last visit to La Prosciutteria. The people working there recognized Emily and gave her a huge bowl of melon to eat while Joe & I enjoyed an antipasto board. We will miss this place dearly!

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Lastly for dinner, I wanted to use up the rest of my homemade marinara. It was the perfect excuse to visit the fresh pasta counter in the Mercato Centrale. We chose basil ravioli which were filled with a ricotta-basil mixture. They were delicious and went perfectly with the marinara!

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Florence: Day 85

We have officially begun our farewell tour of Florence. With only a few days left, we are trying to savor everything we love and will miss about this city. For lunch today, I cooked at home with some ingredients that are not easy to find back in the states. I made trofie pasta (tied with bucatini as my favorite pasta shape) with zucchini, porcini mushrooms, and truffles.

I bought some beautiful zucchini with flowers attached from the supermarket. I’ve only had luck finding zucchini flowers at some farmers markets in the states, but they are hard to come by and are often very small.

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Dried porcini mushrooms are possible to find in the US, but are generally quite expensive. The same goes for truffles. So to make the pasta, I simply chopped the zucchini and sauteed it in olive oil. I soaked the dried porcini mushrooms in warm water until soft and then chopped them and added them to the pan, reserving some of the liquid. I then added the cooked pasta, truffles, a splash of milk, a splash of the porcini mushroom broth and salt and pepper to taste. I lightly dusted the zucchini flowers in flour and shallow-fried them in olive oil in a saute pan until crisp and served them as a garnish. It was really quite easy to prepare and highlighted four of my Italian favorites: trofie pasta, porcini mushrooms, truffles and zucchini flowers!

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We went for a very long walk in the afternoon and found ourselves near my official favorite gelateria, Vivaldi. And this time, they not only were serving gelato, they were serving granita! I had wanted to try granita in Italy, but everywhere I had seen it, it didn’t look very appetizing. I had only noticed it at touristy-looking cafes where it was being churned in a machine like a slurpee. I had actually made a comment to Joe days prior that I wouldn’t try granita from a place like that, but if a place like Vivaldi was serving granita, I would try it. So I was excited to see they had it! We ordered a gelato that was a mix of pistachio and chocolate chip with pieces of candied orange, and a watermelon granita. Both were so delicious and the granita was so refreshing! Although it was certainly sweetened, the granita tasted just like watermelon, not like sugar.

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The last stop of the farewell tour for today was La Volpe e L’Uva. We ordered our two favorites: the caprese salad and the truffle sausage and asiago crostone. We sure will miss this place!

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Florence: Day 84

Today was Joe’s birthday and father’s day. Joe went out at midnight the night before to watch the Italy World Cup game and was also heading out at 5:00pm to watch another local sporting event, so it was a lower-key day from a food perspective. The one thing we did do was get a pizza da asporta (to go) from the Mercato Centrale. We ordered the Capri which was topped like a Caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil. We took the pizza home and ate it while Emily napped. The ingredients used were all so colorful, fresh and delicious. And the crust was thin but chewy with a slight smokey flavor from the pizza oven. This pizza was incredible!

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